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Justice Department launches civil rights probe into Chicago policing

Investigation follows killing of black teen Laquan McDonald by white officer, delays in dashcam video release

The Justice Department has opened a wide-ranging investigation into the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department focusing on concerns over use of deadly force and racial bias, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Monday.

The announcement comes nearly two weeks after the city released the explosive video of a white Chicago police officer shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times and killing him in October. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who welcomed the announcement of investigation, says the city will release another video that shows an officer shooting and killing a black man.

Lynch said the probe would be "thorough, impartial and independent" and will examine if the practices of officers violated the Constitution or federal law.

"We will examine a number of issues related to the Chicago Police Department’s use of force, including its use of deadly force; racial, ethnic and other disparities in its use of force and its accountability mechanisms, such as its disciplinary actions and its handling of allegations of misconduct," Lynch said. 

Emanuel pledged the City's complete cooperation in response to Monday's announcement. "Our mutual goal is to create a stronger, better police department that keeps the community safe while respecting the civil rights of every Chicagoan," he said in a statement.

The civil rights probe follows others recently in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, and come as the police department and Mayor Emanuel are under intense scrutiny over their handling of the 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 video 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 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.

We need to conduct a painful but honest reckoning of what went wrong — not just in one instance, but over decades.

Rahm Emanuel

Mayor of Chicago

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 that he 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.

On Monday, it was announced that the officer in a separate case involving the fatal shooting of a black man would not be charged. Officials also released video of that 2014 incident, during which 25-year-old Ronald Johnson III is seen brandishing a gun prior to being shot by officer George Hernandez. Police say Johnson pointed the weapon at officers prior to being killed. The dead man's family say he was running away from officers when gunned down.

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.

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.

On Friday, Chicago released hundreds of pages that show police officers reported a very different version of the McDonald encounter than 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.

A ‘checkered history’

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.

In one of 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 4 1/2 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 Fairly, general counsel and first deputy of the city's Office of the Inspector General and a former assistant U.S. attorney.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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