The Department of Justice is investigating police misconduct in Chicago. Now what?

8 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A look at how federal civil rights investigations work.

CHICAGO — With federal agents preparing to scrutinize Chicago’s police practices in a wide-ranging civil rights investigation, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is defending measures the city has already taken in the wake of protests over the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white officer.

CHICAGO (AP) — The Justice Department has launched an investigation into racial disparities and the use of force by Chicago police, opening a city plagued for years by accusations of police brutality to broad federal scrutiny for the first time.A Justice Department probe of the Chicago Police Department will find the force overseen by a nominally independent agency that was set up eight years ago to investigate police brutality, but which has been criticized as an overburdened and toothless watchdog. Monday’s announcement comes nearly two weeks after the release of a video showing white Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority is a civilian agency that investigates possible police misconduct, including the shootings of citizens by officers. Here are the key parts of the case: Anita Alvarez, the county state’s attorney, cited “the totality of the evidence” when announcing Monday that she would not charge Officer George Hernandez in the death of 25-year-old Ronald Johnson III, who Hernandez shot in the back as he fled from officers.

But of 409 shootings involving police since September 2007, the agency found only two with credible allegations against an officer, the Chicago Tribune reported, citing the agency’s own data. Several activist groups said they planned further protests in light of a decision announced Monday by Cook County’s top prosecutor not to criminally charge another officer for shooting a 25-year-old black man under different circumstances. But with the city’s handling of such cases under intense scrutiny, Alvarez defended the decision at a press conference in which she released a police dashcam video and a video presentation with recordings of 911 calls and police radio traffic at the time of incident. “We are in the digital age and we didn’t have videos like this 15 or 20 years ago and now we do,” Alvarez said. “And so we as prosecutors are changing the way that we have to do things, because of the fact that we have communities and we have the public that want to know.” Police tactics and racism have been the subject of an intense national debate since protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri in summer 2014 over the shooting death of another black teen, 18-year-old Michael Brown. IPRA’s investigations are rare among civilian oversight agencies in the United States. “Even in cities that have some type of still-rare civilian review, most have their police departments conduct the entire investigation and then allow a civilian oversight board to review,” the mayor’s office said Sunday.

Justice Department officials say they use so-called patterns-and-practices probes to identify systemic failings in troubled police departments and to improve trust between police and the communities they serve. Mr Emanuel ran for re-election earlier this year and received 58% of the black vote; his critics claim that he would not have been re-elected had the Laquan video been public before the election.

Alvarez said Hernandez would have been able to see a man struggle with a plainclothes officer before breaking away and fleeing on foot and could hear officers shouting for the man — Johnson — to stop and drop his weapon. On Monday, Emanuel talked up Fairley’s qualifications and said she would help “to reinvigorate an essential oversight body that we as a city rely on as it relates to oversight and accountability in the police department.” “When it comes to IPRA and the decisions, we need a body that not only can make those decisions (and) do it in a way that when they make a decision, that even when the public disagrees with it, they don’t question the integrity of the work that IPRA is doing.”

It was further fueled over the weekend by the revelation that at least five police officers corroborated Mr Van Dyke’s account (disproved by the video) that Laquan McDonald was moving towards him and threatened him with a knife. The report, issued in March, found that officers routinely discriminated against blacks by using excessive force, issuing petty citations and making baseless traffic stops.” And in Albuquerque, where the government focused on 23 fatal shootings by police, a report released in 2014 said investigators found a troubling pattern of excessive force. Until recently Mr Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s first chief-of-staff, was widely considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, who may be lured away from Chicago by a cabinet post if Hillary Clinton becomes president next year. Alvarez and Assistant State’s Attorney Lynn McCarthy spent more than 30 minutes detailing evidence before showing the dashcam video, which similarly to the McDonald case has no audio. She also added that DNA recovered from a gun found next to Johnson’s body matched Johnson’s DNA, and a matching bullet was found in a car where Johnson was sitting earlier that night.

Led by Jesse Jackson, a black activist, around 400 protestors marched yesterday in Chicago demanding Mr Emanuel’s resignation. #ResignRahm has become a popular hashtag on Twitter. Investigators will interview Chicago residents and defense attorneys, among others, and go through police records and even ride along with officers on neighborhood patrols. It’s rare for Alvarez to go to such lengths to explain why charges were not warranted, but she has come under heavy criticism in recent weeks for waiting more than a year to charge Van Dyke. In an unusually harsh editorial, the New York Times, usually a Rahm-friendly newspaper, said last week that Mr Emanuel had “demonstrated a willful ignorance when he talked about the murder charges against the police officer” who shot McDonald by seeking to depict the cop as a rogue officer.

And that he showed “a complete lack of comprehension” when he fired Mr McCarthy, not because he failed in his leadership role, but because he had become “a distraction”. There were photographs of the gun she said was recovered near Johnson’s body in a grassy area of a park, and digitally magnified images of Johnson’s hand while he was running to show he was holding an object. She also, unusually, showed a video of an unrelated shooting incident to illustrate her point that an officer could be in fear for his life from a man running away; it showed an assailant shooting an officer over his shoulder. Attorney Michael Oppenheimer, who represents Johnson’s mother, Dorothy Holmes, dismissed Alvarez’s presentation as an “infomercial,” said a witness was coerced into false testimony and said the investigation Alvarez relied on was incomplete and didn’t include comments from key witnesses — including Hernandez himself.

The attorney for the Johnson family, Michael Oppenheimer, said the prosecutors’ investigation was a “joke” and an affront to Johnson’s family and Cook County citizens. One element would almost certainly include court oversight, as well as independent monitors who would report back to the judge on whether police are complying with the orders. The audio Oppenheimer presented of what he said was Hernandez’s deposition had the officer saying that he wasn’t concerned about charges being filed against him.

The majority of the investigations end with court-enforceable agreements between the federal government and the community that serve as blueprints for change. Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly said in an emailed statement Monday evening that the Cook County state’s attorney’s office reviewed “all statements” made by Hernandez, including in his deposition. Chicago is broke and Mr Emanuel doesn’t know whether he will receive help from the state government to keep Chicago’s public schools afloat because Illinois still does not have a budget for the current financial year. Though his fund-raising skills are legendary, even he would have found it tricky to persuade donors to part with their money for a politician whose credibility has taken a huge hit.

At the news conference Monday, reporters asked Interim Police Superintendent John Escalante why he and other department brass approved a report in which Van Dyke and other officers described McDonald as acting aggressively moments before he was shot — accounts that seemed to contradict video footage. Escalante responded that superiors didn’t have to sign off on the officers’ accounts — and when pressed later on the issue, he left the room with Emanuel without responding. 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 the footage coincided with Emanuel’s re-election campaign, when the mayor was seeking African-American votes in a tight race.

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