The Justice Department is opening a civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department to determine whether it has a pattern or practice of using excessive force or other violations of federal law, following public outcry sparked by the release of a year-old video showing an officer repeatedly shooting and killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
The agency was careful to say that its investigation is not directly connected to the McDonald case, but many officials and presidential candidates have called for such a probe in recent days, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has come under intense scrutiny for not initially supporting the release of the footage.
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In announcing the probe, Lynch said the focus will not be on individuals, but on trying to make sure the Chicago Police Department has the training, policies and equipment it needs to help build trust between law enforcement and the communities that the officers serve.
“The Department of Justice intends to do everything we can to foster those bonds and create safer and fairer communities across the country,” Lynch said. “And regardless of the findings in this investigation, we will seek to work with local officials, residents, and law enforcement officers alike to ensure that the people of Chicago have the world-class police department that they deserve.”
Last month’s release of footage from October 2014 showed Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting 17-year-old McDonald 16 times, and contradicted reports from police on the scene who had maintained that McDonald pointed a knife at officers and moved toward Van Dyke.
Emanuel and his lawyers fought for much of the past year to keep the police dashboard video from public eyes, citing concerns the footage could compromise the investigations into McDonald’s death. McDonald’s family reached a $5 million settlement with the city in April, around the time Emanuel won re-election in a runoff with Jesús “Chuy” Garcia. In an interview with POLITICO Illinois’ Natasha Korecki and POLITICO’s Mike Allen last Thursday, Emanuel maintained that his only knowledge of the video prior to last month came from testimony that city attorney Stephen Patton delivered to City Council in April.
Regarding a DOJ civil rights investigation, Emanuel reversed course late last week after suggesting at the POLITICO Illinois event that such a probe was not needed.
“I welcome today’s announcement by the Department of Justice and pledge the City’s complete cooperation. Our mutual goal is to create a stronger, better Police Department that keeps the community safe while respecting the civil rights of every Chicagoan,” Emanuel said Monday in a statement released through his office. “Nothing is more important to me than the safety and well-being of our residents and ensuring that the men and women of our Police Department have the tools, resources and training they need to be effective crime fighters, stay safe, and build community trust.”
Following the Nov. 24 release of the video, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan on Dec. 1 called on Lynch to initiate a federal probe into whether the department has violated the Constitution and federal law. Emanuel fired Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy on the same day, following days of protests in the city.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez also called for a federal investigation, as did Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, who called for the ouster of any public officials who helped keep the footage from public view.
“Any official who helped suppress the videotape of Laquan McDonald’s murder should be held accountable,” Sanders said in a statement on Friday. “And any elected official with knowledge that the tape was being suppressed or improperly withheld should resign. No one should be shielded by power or position.”
The latest investigation follows similar undertakings by the Justice Department in Baltimore and in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.