US Justice Department investigates Chicago police for civil rights violations

Massoud Hayoun
New York
Monday 07 December 2015 17:25 GMT
Loretta Lynch announces the federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago police department.
Loretta Lynch announces the federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago police department.

The US Justice Department on Monday announced an investigation into the “patterns and practices” of the Chicago Police Department after video of a white police officer’s killing of a black teenager added fuel to ongoing protests against the policing of American communities of colour.

“Specifically, we will examine a number of issues related to the Chicago Police Department’s use of force, including its use of deadly force, racial, ethnic and other disparities in its use of force,” US Attorney General Loretta Lynch told the press.

A judge on November 24 charged Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, 37, with first-degree murder after video — captured by a police car dashboard camera — was released showing Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald 16 times on October 20, 2014. Police have said that McDonald refused to comply with orders to drop a knife he had been wielding.

President Barack Obama told the press that he was “deeply disturbed” by the footage. McDonald’s and other high-profile police killings drove hundreds of protesters to block Chicago’s retail district on Black Friday, the U.S.’s post-Thanksgiving sales event.

The investigation announced Monday is “inseparable” from the McDonald case, Zachary T Fardon, US attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said at the press conference, but refused to offer further comment, saying that the investigation into McDonald’s death is “ongoing."

The police department and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have come under heavy scrutiny over the killing in a city where activists say the policing of communities of color has eroded confidence in law enforcement amid a spike in gun violence. The New York Times reported in August that Chicago homicides were up by 20 percent from the previous year.

Mayor Emanuel on December 1 fired the city’s police chief, Garry McCarthy, and announced the creation of a “Task force on Police Accountability.”

Mr Emanuel on Monday welcomed the investigation, which he said would bolster efforts to create a police force that “keeps the community safe while respecting the civil rights of every Chicagoan,” he said in a press release, the Associated Press reports.

But those improvements will take time, experts say. The Justice Department investigation “may take decades to finish,” said Jonathan Smith, a dean at the University of the District of Columbia law school and former chief of the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division.

Attorney Lynch said that when the investigation is complete the Department will issue a report and may request that the Chicago Police Department comply with “court-enforceable” measures to improve its practices.

“While we know how to fix an organization, it takes the change of a culture and that takes time,” Professor Smith told The Independent.

“It takes time to rebuild trust broken in a community,” he added. “If [local and federal officials] can come together to do this work, it will reduce not just excessive force, but all uses of force.”

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