Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice released a roughly 160-page report that contained anecdotes like this one, involving two teenagers and a police officer.
One day, a girl and a boy, both 15 years old, were crossing the street at a light. They had been given the right of way by a car that had stopped for them, but which had, in the process, caused a uniformed officer who was driving an unmarked car to abruptly brake before swiftly changing lanes to avoid the stopped car.
The officer, according to the young girl’s account, got out of his vehicle and started yelling obscenities at her, “calling her a ‘f—ing idiot,’ among other things.”
After the girl told the cop that she and her peer had the right of way, the officer “pushed her in the back with both hands so hard she fell into a newspaper stand, after which he handcuffed her arms behind her back while she still wore her backpack, hurting her wrists, and did not loosen the cuffs when she complained.
“The officer called for backup, two officers responded, and the teens were released without charges,” according to the report. “The girl reported this incident to IPRA. During the investigation, the officer, who had not reported using any force, claimed the teens were standing in the street obstructing traffic, causing him to slam on his brakes, prompting the teens to laugh at him. He said the teens cursed at him, and he handcuffed the girl for his and her safety because she “was becoming agitated and refused any and all direction.”
Justice Department officials wrote that, “despite the existence of four witnesses (the two officers, the boy, and the female witness at the very least), the IPRA investigator obtained a statement only from the accused officer.”
The investigator didn’t attempt to contact the female witness “until 26 months after the incident (yet wrote that she ‘did not cooperate with this investigation’). By the time the investigator concluded the investigation in April 2014 and deemed her allegations not sustained, the girl had turned 18.”
Cases like that one, compounded one on top of the other, have led Justice Department officials to conclude, after conducting a 13-month investigation, that there’s “reasonable cause to believe that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution,” according to a Jan. 13 statement released by the department.
“The department found that CPD officers’ practices unnecessarily endanger themselves and result in unnecessary and avoidable uses of force,” officials said. “The pattern or practice results from systemic deficiencies in training and accountability, including the failure to train officers in de-escalation and the failure to conduct meaningful investigations of uses of force.”
The report describes a police force mired in discrimination, controlled by an unwritten “code of silence” that prevents officers from reporting on instances of abuse and misconduct, and handicapped, as of late, by low morale.
In one of the more jarring passages, Justice Department investigators reported that some CPD officers look on the black and brown residents of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods as “animals or subhuman,” with one CPD employee telling the investigators that “officers in his district come to work every day ‘like it’s a Safari.'”
The federal investigation into CPD took place in the wake of the November 2015 release of video footage showing Laquan McDonald, an African American teenager, getting shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke on Oct. 20, 2014.
During a press conference held Friday inside of the Dirksen Federal Building downtown, where officials braced themselves for the public’s reaction to the report, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the breakdown in trust between police and residents — namely those in relatively poor, overwhelmingly minority communities on the South and West Sides — has negative ramifications on both sides of the divide.
“The systems and policies that fail ordinary citizens also fail the vast majority of police department officers who risk their lives every day to serve and protect the people of Chicago,” said Lynch.
A day before visiting Chicago, Lynch was in Baltimore to sign a legally binding consent decree designed to impose reforms on that city’s police department, which — according to a Justice Department investigation launched last August — has systematically “violated the constitutional rights of Baltimore’s residents, particularly African-Americans,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
Lynch said that the Justice Department and city officials in Chicago “have agreed to begin negotiations on an independently monitored, court-enforceable consent decree.”
According to the Justice Department report, typically a lead independent monitor is “appointed by the court, and usually agreed upon by both the Division and the investigated party, but reports to the court. If an agreement cannot be negotiated, the Division will bring a lawsuit to compel needed reforms.”
The looming inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, however, has called into question whether such an agreement would hold water.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Trump’s nominee for attorney general, “believes the Obama administration’s tactics have gone too far and unfairly maligned officers” and “has also spoken against the court-enforced settlements, known as consent decrees, that usually result from investigations like the one in Chicago,” according to a New York Times report.
During last Friday’s press conference, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that city officials will “be at the table” pushing for reform of the CPD regardless of who is in the new president’s cabinet.
“Police misconduct will not be tolerated anywhere in this city,” Emanuel said.
Justice Department officials have said that the agreement “provides a general framework for change, but the department will be doing community outreach to solicit input in developing comprehensive reforms.”
That outreach, they said, includes meeting with police officers, citizens and local authorities “to gather their perspectives about the challenges facing the city — and the changes needed to address them.”
Rev. Ira Acree, the pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin, said that he met last Friday with Lynch and U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon.
“As many of you may know, the report has no new revelation,” Acree said on a Jan. 13 Facebook post. “Maybe there’s no new revelation, but the rumors and accusations have been sustained. [They are] documented.”
Acree said that he would’ve liked for some repercussions to accompany to the report.
“I would have loved for some heads to roll, but that did not happen — not as of yet,” said Acree, adding that he’s “grateful for the due diligence” of Lynch and Fardon. He also gave kudos to black protestors, his fellow clergymen and other people who were demanding reforms before the report came out.
“If we really want to be transparent, we must not just give numbers and figures and conclusions,” Acree said. “There are real people behind this document. There are real, racist police behind this document. They are real killers. Real people died. Real people have been abused.”
Amara Enyia, the executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and a regular Austin Weekly News contributor, said that the report “means nothing without the institutional mechanisms in place to create a culture of openness, cooperation, and accountability. The culture starts from the top and will be reflected back not only to the police department, but to our city.”
Community members who would like to provide comments to the Justice Department are encouraged to email community.CPD@crt.usdoj.gov.