By Sari Horwitz, Mark Berman and Mark Guarino December 8, 2015
The Justice Department will conduct a broad investigation into the Chicago Police Department to determine whether the force “engaged in a pattern or practice of violation of the Constitution or federal law,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced Monday.
But Chicago prosecutors will not file criminal charges against a police officer who shot and killed an African American man last year, an incident that occurred a week before the shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old, which brought national scrutiny to Chicago’s police force.
The two events converged Monday after a tense two weeks in Chicago, as the city’s troubled police department became the epicenter of the simmering national debate over how police officers use deadly force.
The federal probe of the country’s second-largest police department will be similar to federal civil rights investigations that have been launched in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of unrest in both cities, Lynch said. In Chicago, federal investigators will probe how officers use deadly force and examine any racial or ethnic disparities in how force is employed. It also will look at how the department has employed discipline and handled allegations of misconduct.
“Building trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve is one of my highest priorities as attorney general,” 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 they deserve.” Lynch said she did not know how long the investigation would take.
The investigation puts Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s police department under the microscope of his former colleagues in the Obama administration.
Emanuel (D), President Obama’s former chief of staff, last week called the possibility of a civil rights investigation “misguided.” But a day later, he reversed course and said he would welcome such an investigation.
“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,” Emanuel said in a statement Monday and pledged the city’s “complete cooperation.”
The intense scrutiny of the Chicago police force stems from the 2014 death of McDonald. Although McDonald’s death occurred more than a year ago, it was only last month that authorities, acting on a judge’s order, released footage of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting the teenager. Van Dyke was charged with murder the same day that video footage was released.
In the video clip, captured by a dashboard camera, Van Dyke is seen firing a volley of rounds at McDonald, many of them after the teenager had fallen to the ground. Although the initial accounts from authorities suggested that McDonald was approaching officers, the video showed him appearing to veer away before he was shot.
“Anybody who has seen the videotape of Laquan McDonald being shot and killed can see that current practices of the Chicago Police Department need review both internally and externally,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who was among those who asked the Justice Department to investigate the police force.
Less than a week after the release of the video, Emanuel, who was reelected to a second term this year after being forced into an unexpected runoff, dismissed the police superintendent, Garry F. McCarthy. That day, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked the Justice Department to investigate possible civil rights violations by the Chicago Police Department.
“Our goal in this investigation — as in all our pattern-or-practice investigations — is not to focus on individuals, but to improve systems,” Lynch said Monday.
But, shortly after Lynch’s news conference in Washington, Anita Alvarez, the state’s attorney for Cook County, Ill., announced a decision that focused on individuals. She said prosecutors would not file criminal charges against George Hernandez, a Chicago police officer who shot and killed Ronald Johnson III, 25, the week before Van Dyke shot and killed McDonald.
Alvarez held a lengthy news conference to announce the decision not to charge Hernandez and played footage of the incident recorded by a police dashboard camera. She said Johnson was carrying a gun and when he was ordered to drop it, he ran away while still holding the firearm.
When Johnson encountered other officers, there was a physical struggle between Johnson and an officer who was knocked to the ground. Hernandez was with two other officers getting out of an unmarked police car when Johnson ran behind their car. Hernandez fired five shots, striking Johnson twice.
Attorneys for Johnson’s family have accused the city and the police force of covering up what happened in the shooting, insisting that Johnson was unarmed when he was shot.
Johnson’s mother said that the dash-cam video Alvarez showed to reporters is too grainy to determine that Johnson held a gun.
“He has nothing in his hand. It’s too blurry to really tell, because he was running and swinging his hands up and down,” Dorothy Holmes, 46, said in an interview. “They made a murderer go free.”
Attorney Michael Oppenheimer, who represents Johnson’s family, said the family’s federal lawsuit against Hernandez will continue. He called Alvarez’s presentation of the video “a joke.”
Oppenheimer said he believes the police planted the gun found near Johnson’s body and that the dash-cam video purposefully “turns away” once Johnson was shot, staggered across the street and collapsed.
On Monday night, nearly 200 protesters marched in the Washington Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side to bring attention to Johnson’s death. Chicago police officers, on bicycles, occasionally followed the marchers.
Johnson’s mother spoke, as did Fred Hampton, Jr., a local political activist and the son of Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther who Chicago police killed in 1969. Hampton also led the crowd in a chant of “power to the people.”
Protests are expected to continue throughout the week. On noon Wednesday, a walk-out is scheduled on Daley Plaza in the heart of Chicago’s Loop district.