the future of civil rights

The disturbing DOJ report of Chicago police highlights the urgent need for criminal justice reform


This week, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, went before a Senate committee and blamed a rise in violent crime in Chicago on low police morale caused by anti-police brutality protests. On Friday, the Department of Justice released a report detailing wide-ranging civil rights abuses perpetrated by the Chicago Police Department.

The report is the result of a year-long investigation into the Chicago Police Department, prompted by a video that emerged of police shooting and killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The officer who shot McDonald, Jason Van Dyke, was charged with first-degree murder in November 2015—but could soon see that charge dropped.

The DOJ’s report paints a grim picture, where standing on a street corner, fiddling with a waistband, or running from an unmarked vehicle hurtling towards you were considered by police reasonable grounds to open fire.

Chicago police consistently violated citizens’ civil rights, the report found, with the DOJ finding a “pattern or practice of unreasonable force,” citing several examples like this one:

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The report describes another tactic used by Chicago police in which plainclothes officers “jump out” of a fast-moving, unmarked vehicle moving toward a group of people, pursuing—and in some cases, shooting—people when they ran:

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There were also disturbing incidents in which police officers shot unarmed suspects in the back—and were often not reprimanded or held accountable for their actions:

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People of color in Chicago were disproportionately the victims of police brutality, the report found, a concern that Black Lives Matter and other protesters have expressed with increasing frequency in the wake of McDonald’s death:

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There was virtually no accountability for police officers who engaged in this conduct, according to the report, which found that “The City received over 30,000 complaints of police misconduct during the five years preceding our investigation, but fewer than 2% were sustained, resulting in no discipline in 98% of these complaints”:

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Examining the state of community-police relations “forces us to honestly acknowledge the ways in which our society has fallen short in extending the protection of our laws to all Americans,” said serving Attorney General Loretta Lynch as she announced the report’s findings this morning.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told the Chicago Tribune that since the DOJ investigation started, police have begun working to make changes, including asking for public input to develop a new use-of-force policy.

“Quite simply, as a department, we need to do better,” he told the newspaper. “And you have my promise and commitment that we will do better.”

The Chicago report is the latest in a series of DOJ investigations in recent years into major police departments across the country facing accusations of misconduct, particularly with regard to their approaches to communities of color, which have included the Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, police departments, leading to the slow process of reform.

Sessions’ probable confirmation as attorney general could stall that momentum. The Alabama senator, in a pre-confirmation hearing one-on-one with Senator Dick Durbin (D–IL), said he was “not prepared to commit” to act on the recommendations of the Chicago report, according to Politico.

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