The Justice Department released a blistering report on Friday concluding what many in Chicago have been saying for years: that the city’s police officers routinely use excessive and deadly force, particularly against black and Latino residents; that they systematically violate civil rights; and that the department consistently fails to hold officers accountable for abuse and misconduct.
With one week to go before the beginning of the Trump administration — which is widely expected to take a considerably less aggressive approach toward police abuse — federal officials this week tied up the loose ends on some of the department’s most high profile investigations of police departments.
On Thursday, Justice Department officials signed a consent decree with the city of Baltimore, outlining reforms the city will be required to undertake after a scathing report published last August found a pattern of stops, searches, arrests and use of force that violated the First and Fourth Amendments as well as federal anti-discrimination laws.
Then on Friday, the department released one of its most anticipated reports yet, based on the investigation of the Chicago Police Department that it launched in 2015 on the heels of protest and a public scandal over the 2014 police killing of Laquan McDonald.
As it did in Baltimore, the DOJ found that the Chicago Police Department — which, with 12,000 officers, is the country’s second largest police department, after the NYPD — regularly engaged in a pattern of abuse, excessive force, and racial discrimination.
With forceful language and harrowing details, the 164-page document confirms reports of systemic abuse in Chicago’s most heavily policed communities, including disturbing anecdotes about officers shooting people who posed no threat and tasering people who didn’t follow verbal commands.
The report also denounced what it concluded was a widespread culture of covering up police misconduct, including tampering with video and audio evidence and intimidating witnesses. “A code of silence exists, and officers and community members know it,” the report said. One sergeant told DOJ investigators that, “if someone comes forward as a whistleblower in the department, they are dead on the street.”
Last year, The Intercept published a four-part investigation by journalist Jamie Kalven of a far-reaching criminal enterprise within the Chicago Police Department and the code of silence that enabled it.
Kalven was also the first to obtain a copy of Laquan McDonald’s autopsy report, which contradicted police accounts of the shooting and showed the teen had been shot 16 times, including several times in the back, and that police officer Jason Van Dyke had unloaded his weapon “execution style” while McDonald lay on the ground. It took more than a year for the city to release dashcam video of the shooting and charge Van Dyke with first-degree murder (charges his lawyers are currently trying to dismiss.)
McDonald’s killing was one of many in Chicago over the last several years, and it sparked massive protests, a successful effort to oust the prosecutor that oversaw the cover-up effort, and widespread calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign. It also deeply damaged the relationship between police and communities of color at a time when Chicago is facing a spike in violence — with 762 murders in 2016 alone, its most violent year in two decades.
“It has never been more important to rebuild trust for the police within Chicago’s neighborhoods most challenged by violence, poverty, and unemployment,” the report noted.
Garry McCarthy, who headed the department at the time of McDonald’s killing and was fired by Emanuel following public outrage over the incident, slammed the report as “political” and “predetermined.”
Emanuel responded to the report: “Police misconduct will not be tolerated anywhere in this city and those who break the rules will be held accountable for their actions.”
While Chicago officials pledged a commitment to police reform — with some efforts already underway ahead of the report’s release — many residents of Chicago and other cities where police have come under federal scrutiny in recent years are looking ahead to the incoming administration with apprehension. Judges and independent monitors are set to enforce agreements in cities where consent decrees are already in place, but it will be up to the next DOJ administration to negotiate the terms for Chicago, continue pending investigations, or initiate new ones.
Residents of communities afflicted by police abuse point out that the consent decrees are not a panacea: individual officers are not held to account, and consent decrees don’t create sufficient avenues for community oversight and real accountability.
As The Intercept reported earlier this week, President-elect Donald Trump has promised a return to “law and order” policies, like stop and frisk, that have done enormous damage to communities of color in the past. He referred to the growing movement for police accountability a “war on police.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, who Trump chose to lead the DOJ, has said in the past that consent decrees, like the one signed in Baltimore and the one expected to follow the Chicago investigation, are an intrusion on local authority and an overreach by the DOJ. During his confirmation hearing this week, Sessions reiterated his commitment to law and order over civil rights.
“If we are to be more effective in dealing with rising crime, we will have to rely heavily on local law enforcement to lead the way,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “To do that, they must know that they are supported. If I am so fortunate as to be confirmed as attorney general, they can be assured that they will have my support.”
At least some in law enforcement are already taking that as a sign that the DOJ will leave them alone. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke put that plainly in a Facebook statement in response to calls for the DOJ to investigate the Milwaukee County Jail he oversees, where four people, including a baby, have died since April.
“After January 20, 2017, Sen. Jeff Sessions will become the new attorney general of the U.S. Department of Justice,” Clarke said in the statement. “He will take the partisan politics out of decision making at DOJ.”