The civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department will open up the Chicago Police Department to the kind of deep soul-searching to which police departments in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore were subject after controversial officer-involved deaths in those cities, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced on Dec. 7.
The move comes roughly two weeks after the Nov. 24 release of police dashboard-cam video footage showing Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times last October. McDonald had a knife, but was walking away from, and appeared to present no immediate threat to, officers when Van Dyke opened fire.
It was only after the tape was released by court order that the Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez decided to charge Van Dyke with murder. Evidence that would emerge after the video’s release indicates that Chicago police, under Superintendent Garry McCarthy, may have acted to destroy other video footage of the murder and intimidate witnesses who contradicted the false accounts of McDonald’s behavior by officers at the scene.
There has also been some speculation that Mayor Rahm Emanuel may have had an interest in suppressing the video footage, since releasing it during his reelection campaign in April may have resulted in the loss of the mayor’s crucial African American share of the vote. Emanuel, however, has denied that the video was a factor in his reelection efforts.
That hasn’t muted a growing chorus calling for the resignation of the mayor, Alvarez and, before Emanuel dismissed him on Dec. 1, former Superintendent McCarthy.
Emanuel had initially balked at the idea of a civil rights investigation, calling the move “misguided,” but backtracked on that assessment a day later, noting that he “welcomes” a deep inquiry into the department’s “systemic issues.”
Before his acquiescence, Emanuel had announced the formation of a new police accountability task force, whose members he would appoint. The committee, according to a press release, “would review the system of accountability, training and oversight that is currently in place for Chicago’s police officers.”
But the move was met by a hefty dose of skepticism by some media. The Chicago Tribune described Emanuel’s task force idea as “a tried-and-true tactic elected officials long have employed to buy time and breathing room when faced with a scandal or crisis.”
Calls for a federal civil rights investigation from a bevy of political heavyweights, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton and Alvarez, may also have pressured the mayor to come aboard with the idea.
The civil rights investigation into the Chicago police department would be distinct from the federal government’s criminal probe into the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald last October.
Lynch said that the civil investigation would be much broader and comprehensive, focusing on how Chicago police use force, the degree of accountability within the system and the department’s culture of racially biased policing.
“Building trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve is one of my highest priorities as Attorney General,” she said.
A recent Chicago Tribune analysis of data provided by the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) — the civilian body that’s supposed to investigate police shootings and complaints against officers — found that between Oct. 1, 2007 and Sept. 30, 2015, there were 409 officer-involved shootings, with 127 of them fatal. IPRA found only two of those shootings to be unjustified.
Over 73 percent of the victims of those 409 officer-involved shootings were black, with many of those shootings concentrated in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods. In Austin’s 15th police district, there were up to 20 officer-involved shootings since October 2007; while the 11th district experienced up to 30 officer-involved shootings.
In March, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois released data demonstrating that Chicago’s stop-and-frisk practice was more rampant than New York City’s. In Chicago, the ACLU identified more than 250,000 stop-and-frisk encounters that didn’t result in an arrest between May and August 2014.
Blacks, who comprise roughly one third of Chicago’s population, accounted for almost 75 percent of individuals subjected to the stops. As with officer-involved shootings, many of those stops tended to concentrate in neighborhoods like Austin, North Lawndale and West Garfield Park.
And last year, the Chicago Sun-Times noted that the Chicago Police Department’s brutality-related lawsuits “have cost Chicago taxpayers $521 million over the last decade.”
Days before Madigan, Alvarez and Emanuel could be heard calling for a federal investigation into the police department, West Side community leaders had taken to bullhorns and mobile audio systems to demand more specific federal probes into the McDonald case and into the handling of the case by the mayor and Alvarez.
“We want [Chicago Police] Superintendent Garry McCarthy to go right away,” said Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), during a Nov. 29 protest on Michigan Avenue.
“We want a special prosecutor appointed to take over for Anita Alvarez, as we’ve lost confidence in her. We want a federal investigation into what seems to be a cover-up by the mayor’s office, police department and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office on the release of the video tape.”
At a Dec. 1 town hall, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) announced that the City Council’s Black Caucus would draft a resolution asking for a detailed investigation to discover “what was known by our police superintendent and what was known by our mayor as well.”
“I do support some type of subject matter hearing as to the incidents surrounding the death of McDonald,” Taliaferro said.
Community activist and Austin Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amara Enyia called for a public hearing at the meeting. She questioned the mysterious details surrounding the missing video footage from a Burger King restaurant near where the shooting took place, the lack of audio on the dashboard-cam video and the protracted investigation into McDonald’s shooting.
“These are questions that need to be answered in the spirit of transparency,” she said during the Dec. 1 town hall.
During a Dec. 4 march — led by Jackson, Boykin, Taliaferro, Rev. Marshall Hatch, Rev Ira Acree, members of the NAACP, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Young & Powerful youth leadership group — protestors walked around City Hall 16 times in recognition of the number of times McDonald was shot.
They demanded a federal investigation of the mayor’s office, the State Attorney’s office and the Chicago Police Department. They also called for a special federal persecutor to take over the prosecution of Van Dyke, the creation of a truly independent body to investigate police misconduct and the release of all dashboard-cam videos of police involved shootings.