Earlier this month the Chicago Police Department joined a growing list of law enforcement agencies around the nation under investigation by the Department of Justice for possible civil rights violations.
The announcement of the Justice probe came on the heels of the November release of a video showing white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald on October 21, 2014. The Chicago Police Department spent more than a year trying to cover up the shooting. But with the video’s release, Van Dyke is being charged with murder.
Though activists have cheered the Justice Department’s announcement, such investigations can only go so far. Overhauling the nation’s second largest police department will be no easy feat, civil rights advocates say. “The big challenge is going to be the culture within the department and the culture of silence and lying,” says Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project.
Despite conducting a string of investigations the last two decades, Justice officials have yet to take any concrete action. The Department of Justice began investigating law enforcement agencies accused of violating civil rights after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 granted the agency the power to do so.
Since then, only a handful of police departments have been investigated, including those in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. Despite thorough investigations, complaints about each of these departments have persisted.
The Los Angeles Police Department became the first agency to be investigated by the Justice Department after the widely televised 1991 beating of Rodney King by four white police officers, which triggered riots in L.A.
The department had been plagued with complaints of corruption and misconduct for years and the resulting settlement required federal oversight of the department and a database with information on use of force, officer-involved shootings, complaints, arrest reports, and citations.
However, according to the The Guardian US’s project The Counted, which counts the number of people killed by police, LAPD has killed 20 people this year—more than any other police department.
Since its creation in 1835, the Chicago Police Department has been embroiled in dozens of scandals and allegations of abuse. In the wake of the Lynch’s announcement, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel offered a rare apology and promised change, but Chicagoans have been promised reform before, to no avail.
“There’s no doubt that this is an organization that’s resistant to change,” says the University of Chicago Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project’s founder Craig Futterman. But he stresses that community involvement is necessary if the Chicago Police Department is truly going to change. “If folks who are most deeply impacted are excluded from the process, they may not actually get to the core nature of the problem.”
Still, with or without community involvement, spurring reform from a DOJ investigation will be a herculean task. In Cleveland, a department with 1,500 officers took 18 months to complete. Chicago’s force is almost ten times that size with 12,000 officers.
One reason the Department of Justice has investigated so few police departments is a lack of resources. An investigation could be lengthy as well as extremely costly.
Like other urban police departments, the Chicago Police Department has been accused of excessive force, corruption, misconduct, brutality, racial profiling, and more.
A 2014 report by the We Charge Genocide coalition, a Chicago-based grassroots initiative, highlights some of the department’s brutality with cold statistics. Black Chicagoans, for example, are ten times more like to be shot by a police officer than white city residents. The report found that out of 1,509 excessive force complaints, only 2 percent resulted in any kind of penalty.
It’s an open question whether this latest Justice Department action will lead to changes in Chicago policing. In 2004, the Cleveland Police Department agreed to reforms after a DOJ investigation. Eight years later white police officer Michael Brelo fired 137 bullets into a car occupied by two unarmed black people.
The Brelo shooting caused the Department of Justice to launch another investigation into the patterns and practices of the department and release its findings a few weeks after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a white police officer while playing in a park with a toy gun. The Cleveland Police Department agreed to another settlement with the Justice Department in May.
The Chicago probes comes at a time of increasing public skepticism of law enforcement officers and more and more Americans are demanding policing reform nationwide.
The Justice Department investigation announcement has drawn ambivalent reactions in the civil rights community. Some voice optimism that the probe will lead to reforms. Others aren’t so sure. “I think between the police union and the rank-and-file officers and management there will be obstruction at every level,” says Siska.