The Justice Department investigation of Chicago’s trigger-happy police department, announced Monday by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, is welcome. It is also long overdue.
For years, watchdogs, lawyers and journalists have documented instances of police misconduct, including violent episodes caught on video and then subjected to the same silent treatment that nearly buried the death of black teenager Laquan McDonald, who was shot to death by a white Chicago police officer in October 2014.
What distinguished the McDonald case, which has now triggered the federal investigation, is that the officer’s actions appear so outrageous, the city’s coverup so blatant and the official line so thoroughly discredited by the release of a video, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s (D) administration tried so hard to keep under wraps. In the face of that perfect storm, the Justice Department had to act. (The officer, Jason Van Dyke, has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer says he will be exonerated at trial.)
It is critical that the Justice Department now examine not only the police force, where a culture of impunity and a code of silence are deeply ingrained, but also Chicago’s entire system. That includes the Independent Police Review Authority, which examined 409 cases of police-involved shootings in the eight years ending Sept. 30 – and found just two unjustified. (Both involved off-duty police.) It includes the prosecutor’s office, headed by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
And it includes legal protections enshrined in union contracts as well as a state law known as the law enforcement officers’ “bill of rights.” The effect of those protections is to erect formidable barriers to discipline, let alone prosecution, in the event of police misconduct. For example: Officers involved in a shooting are afforded a 24-hour grace period before they must speak to investigators.
The problems in Chicago are complex and decades in the making; cleaning up the police force will require investigators to use a wide aperture. But the payoff, in terms of building the case for real reform, could be enormous.