CHICAGO (AP) — Attorney General Loretta Lynch has announced a federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago police department.
The investigation will search for patterns of unconstitutional policing practices throughout the police force.
The announcement comes nearly two weeks after the city released the explosive video of a white Chicago police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times, killing him.
The investigation will be led by the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
Its focus goes beyond the October 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald to look at the police force’s policies on use of force, including racial, ethnic and other disparities, and its accountability systems.
Video of the incident shows McDonald veering away from officers on a four-lane street when Van Dyke, seconds after exiting his squad car, opens fire from close range. The officer continues shooting after McDonald crumples to the ground and is barely moving. The video does not include sound, which authorities have not explained.
The civil rights probe follows others recently in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, and comes as the police department and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are under intense scrutiny over their handling of McDonald’s death. Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder Nov. 24, more than a year after the killing and just hours before the release of police dashboard camera footage showing the officer shooting the teenager.
The Chicago City Council signed off on a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family even before the family filed a lawsuit, and city officials fought in court for months to keep the video from being released publicly. The city’s early efforts to suppress its release coincided with Emanuel’s re-election campaign, when the mayor was seeking African-American votes in a tight race.
Since the release of the video, Emanuel forced Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to resign and formed a task force to examine the department. But the calls for the mayor to resign — something he said he won’t do — have grown louder from protesters in the city, including more than 200 people who shouted for him to step down during a Sunday afternoon march. Protesters counted to 16 in reference to the shots fired, a number that has taken on a symbolic significance since the demonstrations began.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson said he was pleased with the decision to investigate Chicago. Jackson said he hoped that the investigation would focus not only on the police department, but on Emanuel’s office and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, which he and others have criticized for taking so long to bring charges against Van Dyke.
“All three of them — the police, City Hall and the prosecutor’s office — are suspect,” Jackson said. “We cannot trust them.”
Emanuel initially said a federal civil rights investigation of Chicago police tactics would be “misguided.” He later reversed course and said he would welcome the Justice Department’s involvement — something that politicians including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan have called for.
A spokesman for the police department referred a request for comment about the reported investigation to Adam Collins, a spokesman for the mayor’s office.
“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,” Collins said.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, criticized for not filing charges earlier in the McDonald case, says she will speak Monday morning about the killing of another young black man by city police. Authorities say Ronald Johnson, 25, pointed a gun at police before an officer shot and killed him on Oct. 12, 2014. His mother, Dorothy Holmes, said that wasn’t the case and that her son was running away from police.
Emanuel has said the city would release video this week of Johnson’s shooting. Holmes and her attorney have seen the video and are pushing for its release.
Emanuel has scheduled a Monday afternoon news conference on police accountability with interim Chicago Police Superintendent John Escalante and the new head of the city agency that investigates police cases.
On Friday, Chicago released hundreds of pages that show police officers reported a very different version of the McDonald encounter than the video shows. In the documents, police officers portray McDonald as being far more menacing than he appears in dashcam footage. That further angered activists and protesters, who were already accusing the city of a cover up.
The Justice Department in the last six years has opened more than 20 investigations of police departments. In March, the department released a scathing report of the Ferguson police force that found pervasive civil rights abuses. It opened an investigation of Baltimore police in May in response to the death of a black man in police custody.
Justice Department investigations typically look for systematic violations of federal law. When it announced the Baltimore probe, the department said it would focus on issues including the use of deadly force, stops, searches, arrests and whether there is a pattern of discrimination in policing.
Emanuel acknowledged “the checkered history of misconduct in the Chicago Police Department” in an opinion column published over the weekend in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.
“Chicago is facing a defining moment on the issues of crime and policing and the even larger issues of truth and justice,” Emanuel wrote. “To meet this moment, we need to conduct a painful but honest reckoning of what went wrong — not just in one instance, but over decades.”
The University of Chicago said last month that an analysis by its civil rights and police accountability clinic found that of 56,000 complaints against Chicago police, only a fraction led to disciplinary action.
Among the most notorious cases of wrongdoing, dozens of men, mostly African-American, said they were subjected to torture from a Chicago police squad headed by former commander Jon Burge during the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, and many spent years in prison. Burge was convicted of lying about the torture and served 4½ years in prison.
Of 409 shootings involving Chicago police since September 2007, only two have led to allegations against an officer being found credible, the Chicago Tribune reported, citing data from the agency that investigates police cases.
Late Sunday night, the mayor’s office announced that the head of that agency, the Independent Police Review Authority had resigned effective immediately.
Emanuel’s office said in a statement that while Scott Ando had reduced the agency’s backlog of cases during his tenure, “… it has become clear that new leadership is required as we rededicate ourselves to dramatically improving our system of police accountability.”
Ando will be replaced by Sharon Fairley, general counsel and first deputy of the city’s Office of the Inspector General and a former assistant U.S. attorney.