DOJ releases damning investigation of the Chicago Police Department

A dangerous cowboy culture exists.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces the completion of the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Chicago Police Department. CREDIT: Cassie M. Chew
Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces the completion of the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Chicago Police Department. CREDIT: Cassie M. Chew

By Carimah Townes and Alan Pyke

The Chicago Police Department is infected with a dangerous cowboy culture, actively coaches officers to paper over abuse of force incidents, and fails accountability tests across the board, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reported Friday.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch presented the searing findings of a 13-month investigation on Friday morning, announcing that CPD is systematically violating the U.S. Constitution.

“The Department of Justice has concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the Chicago Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution,” Lynch said. “It fails to properly collect and analyze data, including data on misconduct complaints and training deficiencies. And it does not accurately review use of force incidents to determine whether force was appropriate or lawful or whether the use of force could have been avoided altogether.”

The DOJ launched its investigation after video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting went public, but CPD’s systematic violation of civil rights was documented long before the federal government stepped in. During the 1970s and 1980s, the city’s former police commander, Jon Burge, waged a large-scale torture campaign in the Southside, beating, electrocuting, suffocating, burning, and caddle prodding at least 120 black men in a police station referred to the “House of Screams.” More recently, the Guardian discovered similar police torture occurring at a black site called Homan Square.

Since the federal investigation of the department was launched, additional patterns of misconduct have come to the fore. Officers destroy their cameras so they won’t be caught abusing their authority or breaking department protocol. The Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which Mayor Rahm Emanuel now wants to scrap altogether, routinely covers up police complaints and kowtows to the CPD’s demands. Top prosecutors, including former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, have also protected cops instead of charging them or intentionally under-charged them.

The DOJ’s investigation is the most comprehensive look at CPD abuses and patterns of practices to date. Here are five of its most damning findings:

Dangerous cowboy tactics are rampant in CPD.

The report blasts city police for a pattern of reckless tactics. Cops frequently engage in ill-advised foot pursuits and shoot people for fleeing, a violation of the Constitution.

In one example from the report, three officers fired 45 rounds at a man while chasing him. After they killed him, the cops claimed he had shot at them while fleeing. He did not have a gun, and the weapon found nearby which the officers tried to use as justification “was later determined to be fully-loaded and inoperable.” The officers were cleared of any wrongdoing by a review panel.

“CPD has long had detailed policies regarding vehicle pursuits,” the report says. “It does not have a foot pursuit policy. It should.”

Officers also routinely fail to wait for backup, even when off-duty or in plainclothes, causing unnecessarily dangerous confrontations with people who aren’t sure if they’re being mugged by a stranger claiming to be a cop. In one example, a cop’s aggressive foot pursuit without backup left him standing exposed in the street having emptied the clip of his sidearm, without any ability to control the situation.

Several officers admitted to investigators that they frequently use tactics they were not trained in, including using their cars to box in suspect vehicles and an informal “partner splitting” strategy that leaves officers out of touch with each other and exposed to greater danger and confusion.

Police in Chicago also frequently fire their weapons into vehicles recklessly, the report says. The department technically had a policy on the books from 2002 to 2015 that instructed officers not to stand in front of cars and shoot. “CPD did not enforce its 2002–2015 policy, however,” the report notes.

Frightening “jump outs” are common practice.

Groups of officers, often in plainclothes and riding in unmarked vehicles, frequently engage in “jump outs.” This involves officers accelerating up to a group of pedestrians, screeching to a halt a few feet away, and jumping out with their guns drawn. The tactic causes people to panic and flee. “The officers then zero-in on the fleeing person, often with one officer tasked with chasing him on foot,” the report states. “Some of the most problematic shootings occurred when that sole officer closed in on the subject, thus greatly increasing the risk of a serious or deadly force incident.”

“It can be difficult, especially at night, to discern that individuals springing out of an unmarked car are police officers,” investigators write. “In high-crime areas, residents may be particularly unwilling to stick around to find out.”

Retaliatory violence is routine…

“As with lethal force, some officers escalate encounters unnecessarily. This includes incidents in which CPD officers use retaliatory force against people who object and claim that they were unlawfully stopped by CPD,” the report says.

Investigators recount multiple chilling incidents of retaliation. In one, an on-duty officer left his beat to confront teenagers in his neighborhood after getting a call from a neighbor. When he arrived, the boys were on their bikes nearby. “The officer pointed his gun at them, used profanity, and threatened to put their heads through a wall and to blow up their homes,” the report says.

In another instance, a male officer who was 6’1” and 186 pounds slammed a teenage girl 9 inches and 60 pounds smaller than him to the ground, chipping her teeth. In his paperwork regarding the violence, he claimed he’d employed “an emergency take-down maneuver to regain control.” The girl was guilty only of yelling at him and waving her arms.

The report also documents multiple instances of police deploying Tasers inappropriately, in non-violent encounters prompted by petty offenses like graffiti and public urination.

and officers appear to be coached in how to cover it up.

“It also appears that officers have been instructed on the language they should use to justify force,” the investigators report. Furthermore, the department gives cops a check-box form rather than requiring them to relay a narrative explanation of why they tased, hit, tackled, or used a baton on someone.

The feds reviewed a mix of paperwork from the department documenting use-of-force incidents, and videos of such encounters. The video evidence suggests problems with false justifications for abuses of force are even more widespread than the documents indicate, the investigators say.

One video showed a group of officers arresting a woman for prostitution. “After she is handcuffed, one officer tells another to ‘tase her ten fucking times.’ Officers call her an animal, threaten to kill her and her family, and scream, ‘I’ll put you in a UPS box and send you back to wherever the fuck you came from’ while hitting the woman — who was handcuffed and on her knees,” the report says. Paperwork filed about the incident claimed she had assaulted the officers, and supervisors approved their report. The video eventually led the city to pay a $150,000 settlement.

Another clip shows officers hitting a woman and using a Taser on her even though she was complying with their commands. Again, the paperwork filed by the cops involved justified the violence with information proven false by the video.

A third shows an officer clubbing a man while breaking up a party, then using standardized language to cover up the unprovoked assault. “In his reports, the officer, using language very similar to that used in many other reports we reviewed, falsely claimed that the victim had tried to punch him,” investigators wrote.

Supervisors rarely investigate use of force incidents that don’t involve firearms.

Supervisors are obligated to “respond to the scene when the injury to a subject or member is of the severity to require immediate medical attention” and “ensure that all witnesses are identified, interviewed, and that information is recorded in the appropriate report.” But a thorough review of hundreds of cases showed that supervisors seldom visit a scene unless an officer used his weapon, let alone question witnesses or injured parties.

The use of tasers and other forceful means are routinely ignored, and once an official report is filed about a particular incident, supervisors approve them without scrutinizing or following up on details.

Notably, supervisors didn’t investigate cases in which dogs were released on children.

“In one case, officers allowed a canine to bite two unarmed 17-year-old boys who had broken into an elementary school and stolen some items,” the report says. “In another case, officers deployed a canine to locate two boys, ages 12 and 14, who had broken into a school and stolen some candy and basketballs.”

Shootings are almost always deemed justified. Most allegations of misconduct are ignored altogether.

The DOJ reviewed officer-involved shootings from the past five years, and concluded that 409 of 411 investigated by the City were justified.

Approximately half of all misconduct complaints aren’t investigated by Chicago officials, in part because there are established roadblocks that make it difficult to start the process. For an investigation to get off the ground, the person(s) filing a complaint has to make a sworn statement, in person. If they don’t, neither IPRA nor the police department’s own Bureau of Internal Affairs (BIA) will follow up.

“The City closes about 40% of all complaints (an average of 2,400 complaints a year) because the complainant did not sign an affidavit. A 2015 report showed that between 2011 and 2014, IPRA closed 58% of its total complaints for lack of an affidavit,” the DOJ writes.