The Justice Department plans to launch an investigation into the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department, a wide-ranging review similar to those that scrutinized the police departments in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, according to several law enforcement officials.
The civil probe, which the officials say could be announced early this week, comes as Chicago continues to grapple with protests after the release of a video showing the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, which prompted murder charges for the officer involved and the resignation of the city’s police chief. The Justice Department is already investigating the McDonald shooting, but this new investigation by the department’s civil rights division would focus on the police department’s practices broadly to determine whether any of them contribute to civil rights violations.
A spokesman for the Chicago Police Department said Sunday morning that he did not know anything about the possibility of a second, broader federal probe into the force. A Justice Department spokesperson did not confirm that a new probe into Chicago PD is imminent.
“Civil rights division lawyers are reviewing the many requests for an investigation, which is the department’s standard process, and the attorney general is briefed regularly on the review and expects to make a decision very soon,” a department official said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), a former top aide to President Obama, called the possibility of a civil rights investigation “misguided” last week. But, a day later, he reversed course and said he would welcome such an investigation.
Emanuel has come under fire for his administration’s handling of the McDonald video, specifically for fighting its release for more than a year, which some have suggested was a politically motivated decision meant to insulate the mayor from political backlash while he was locked in a tight reelection effort. One week after the McDonald video was released, Emanuel fired Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy.
“I welcome the engagement of the Justice Department,” Emanuel told reporters during a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday. “We have a long road ahead of us as a city, and I welcome people from many views to help us do what exactly we need to do.”
Adam Collins, a spokesman for Emanuel, said in a statement Sunday night: “We will let the Department of Justice address what action they will or will not choose to take, but as was made clear last week, we welcome the engagement of the Department of Justice as we work to restore trust in our police department and improve our system of police accountability.”
On the same day that McCarthy was fired, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan wrote a letter to the DOJ urging them to open an investigation into the police department.
“The McDonald shooting is shocking, and it highlights serious questions about the historic, systemic use of unlawful and excessive force by Chicago police officers and the lack of accountability for such abuse by CPD,” Madigan (D) wrote.
Under Obama, Attorneys General Loretta Lynch and her predecessor, Eric Holder, have used patterns-and-practices investigations to aggressively probe police departments for potential constitutional violations, investigating dozens of departments since 2009. Those probes have found patterns of excessive force by police in Cleveland; Albuquerque; the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; Portland; New Orleans; Seattle; Puerto Rico; and Warren, Ohio.
Congress empowered the federal government to conduct such investigations in the aftermath of the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers and the riots that followed. A law passed in 1994 gave the Justice Department the power to investigate and force systemic changes to local police departments — and to sue the departments if they do not comply.
“We have called for police reform as it relates to this police department…and we’ve also called for accountability in city government,” said Rose Joshua, president of Chicago South Side NAACP, which had previously called for a Justice Department probe into the city’s police. “It should be something that’s broad. It should be a detailed probe and should look into the specific civil rights complaints filed over the years by activists here on the ground.”
Joshua said that she welcomes the federal probe and hopes that it will address the underlying policing issues. She also said she is hopeful that the federal investigation will be a step toward policing reform — even more so than the resignation of McCarthy.
“We have systemic problems, and if we can find a solution to systemic issues, it’s going to take the community to do that,” Joshua said. “At this juncture, I’m saddened and afraid and I’m wondering if we can do that.”
Mark Berman contributed to this report