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Report: Chicago police use excessive force and often treat people “as animals or subhuman”

The Justice Department just completed an exhaustive 13-month investigation into the Chicago Police Department. The findings are horrifying.

A Chicago police officer. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Chicago Police Department routinely violates civil rights, uses unnecessary force, discriminates against minority residents, and fails to hold officers accountable — creating a climate of distrust, violence, and fear that makes residents and cops unsafe. That’s according to a massive new report that the US Department of Justice released on Friday.

As part of the investigation for the report, the Justice Department reviewed thousands of pages of documents, conducted hundreds of interviews with officials and residents, and participated in dozens of ride-along observations with police over 13 months.

Federal investigators attributed the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) vast problems not to individual officers but to policies from the city and police department that regularly failed to adequately train officers and hold them accountable for wrongdoing — sending a message that bad behavior is tolerable.

The investigation followed the police shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014. Officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot McDonald, initially claimed that the black 17-year-old lunged at police officers and posed a dangerous threat. But a dashboard camera video released in 2015 showed that McDonald was at least 10 feet away from the officers and didn’t move toward police. The revelation worsened already-tense community relations with the police, leading the Justice Department to get involved in its biggest investigation of a local police department yet.

The report also comes while Chicago is struggling with the highest spike in murders since 1996. Much of the increase in crime may be attributable to the findings of the report: Research shows that when local communities don’t trust police, they’re much less likely to cooperate with them during investigations — and that makes it harder to solve and prevent crime.

Indeed, the Justice Department emphasized in its report that improving community relations is critical to bringing down crime in the long run: “[F]or Chicago to find solutions — short- and long-term — for making those neighborhoods safe, it is imperative that the City rebuild trust between CPD and the people it serves, particularly in these communities [suffering from the most gun violence].”

The report is likely the Justice Department’s last major investigation before President-elect Donald Trump takes office. During President Barack Obama’s tenure, the Justice Department has aggressively investigated nearly two dozen police departments and pushed for reform, particularly after high-profile police killings.

But Trump and his attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, have voiced skepticism of the investigations, suggesting that the Trump administration will do less to hold local police departments accountable through the Justice Department.

Still, the Justice Department’s report shows the value of these investigations. Here is a police department that is failing at practically every level, yet we wouldn’t have ever known about many of these abuses if the federal government hadn’t gotten involved.

In the aftermath of the investigation, the Justice Department and city of Chicago have reached a “statement of agreement” that will outline reforms that the city will pursue, particularly to ameliorate its relationship with minority and violence-torn communities.

It remains unclear whether the report will lead to a court-enforced consent decree that is typical of these investigations. Such a move would require further negotiations between the Justice Department and the city of Chicago, which an apathetic Trump administration is likely to drop.

Whatever the consequences, the report offers yet another reminder of the systemic issues facing American policing. Time and time again, the Justice Department has conducted these investigations across different cities and counties in different regions, uncovering the same problems: racial bias, excessive use of force, poor accountability, and so on. Putting all of these findings together, it’s clear that the latest investigation and report don’t show just what’s wrong with Chicago police, but also problems that are perhaps widespread in all American policing.

With that said, here’s what the Justice Department’s report on the Chicago Police Department revealed.

1) Chicago police routinely mistreat minority residents

Young boys watch a protest in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Justice Department investigation found that the Chicago Police Department “has tolerated racially discriminatory conduct that not only undermines police legitimacy, but also contributes to the pattern of unreasonable force.”

For example, raw statistics show that Chicago police officers use force almost 10 times more often against black residents than against their white counterparts. The Justice Department described this as an example of how “residents in black neighborhoods suffer more of the harms caused by breakdowns in uses of force, training, supervision, accountability, and community policing” routinely seen across the police department.

Perhaps the clearest example of this, beyond the raw numbers, is how officers — even supervisors — were allowed to make outright bigoted comments in public and on social media with few if any consequences.

Here are examples of how officers treated black residents:

Black youth told us that they are routinely called “nigger,” “animal,” or “pieces of shit” by CPD officers. A 19-year-old black male reported that CPD officers called him a “monkey.” Such statements were confirmed by CPD officers. One officer we interviewed told us that he personally has heard coworkers and supervisors refer to black individuals as monkeys, animals, savages, and “pieces of shit.”

And here are a few examples of what officers got away with on social media:

For example, one officer posted a status stating, “Hopefully one of these pictures will make the black lives matter activist organization feel a whole lot better!” with two photos attached, including one of two slain black men, in the front seats of a car, bloodied, covered in glass. Several CPD officers posted social media posts contain disparaging remarks about Arabs and Muslims, with posts referring to them as “7th century Islamic goat humpers,” “Ragtop,” and making other anti-Islamic statements. One CPD officer posted a photo of a dead Muslim soldier laying in a pool of his own blood with the caption: “The only good Muslim is a fucking dead one.” Supervisors posted many of the discriminatory posts we found, including one sergeant who posted at least 25 anti-Muslim statements and at least 43 other discriminatory posts, and a lieutenant who posted at least five anti-immigrant and anti-Latino statements.

Unsurprisingly, these types of comments have left a mark on the community. One black resident told the Justice Department that when it comes to Chicago police, there’s “no treating you as a human being.”

The Justice Department went on:

Consistent with these reports, our investigation found that there was a recurring portrayal by some CPD officers of the residents of challenged neighborhoods — who are mostly black — as animals or subhuman. One CPD member told us that the officers in his district come to work every day “like it’s a safari.” This theme has a long history in Chicago. A photo from the early 2000s that surfaced years later shows white CPD officers Jerome Finnegan and Timothy McDermott squatting over a black man posed as a dead deer with antlers as the officers hold their rifles.

Yet just 1.3 percent of complaints over racist language between 2011 and March 2016 were sustained by internal investigators, the Justice Department found.

This was emblematic of a bigger problem: The police department regularly fails to hold its officers accountable for misconduct. (More on that in section 3.)

When police did pursue investigations into community members’ complaints of any kind, they favored white residents: “[F]or each allegation contained in a complaint, a white complainant is three-and-a-half-times more likely to have the allegation sustained — and the officer held accountable for his or her misconduct — than a black complainant, and twice as likely to have the allegation sustained than a Latino complainant.”

In other cases of discrimination, the police often failed to investigate anti-Latino, anti-Muslim, and anti-transgender hate crimes. Here, for example, is what trans advocates said: “Not only are members of this community upset that [several murders of trans people] were never investigated as hate crimes, but they are also concerned that CPD’s failure to solve any of the murders reflects a lack of commitment to these cases.”

Taken together, the report suggests that the Chicago Police Department discriminates against people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and gender identity — and city and police leaders do little about it.

2) Chicago officers frequently use excessive force

Chicago police cars. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Justice Department was unequivocal in its findings: Although Chicago police officers have a right and duty to protect themselves and others, cops “engage in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, that is unreasonable.”

The Justice Department elaborated on some of the biggest causes of problems:

We found that officers engage in tactically unsound and unnecessary foot pursuits, and that these foot pursuits too often end with officers unreasonably shooting someone — including unarmed individuals. We found that officers shoot at vehicles without justification and in contradiction to CPD policy. We found further that officers exhibit poor discipline when discharging their weapons and engage in tactics that endanger themselves and public safety, including failing to await backup when they safely could and should; using unsound tactics in approaching vehicles; and using their own vehicles in a manner that is dangerous.

In short, police regularly escalate situations in totally unreasonable ways, leading to avoidable use of force.

In a particularly striking example, an off-duty police officer wasn’t disciplined after shooting someone he wrongly believed was carrying a weapon — only to later go on and kill another person whom he wrongly believed had a weapon:

[A]n off-duty CPD officer spotted the silhouette of a man in a vacant building and suspected the man was burglarizing it. The officer called 911, but did not wait for other officers to arrive. Instead, the off-duty officer summoned the man out of the building. According to a civilian witness, the burglary suspect angrily exited the building, yelling, “You’re not a fucking cop.” The suspect then advanced on the officer, who struck and kicked the suspect. According to the officer, the suspect then reached into his waistband and withdrew a shiny object, prompting the officer to fire twice, killing the man. No weapon was recovered. Instead, officers reported finding a silver watch near the man’s body. IPRA found the shooting justified without addressing the officer’s failure to await backup. According to press reports, in November 2016, this same officer shot a man in the back and killed him, claiming the man had pointed a gun at him during a foot pursuit. No gun was recovered.

The problem is seen not just with deadly force but with nonlethal force as well. The Justice Department found, for one, that officers regularly use stun guns on children — which federal investigators say is unreasonable. In one case, “officers hit a 16-year-old girl with a baton and then Tasered her after she was asked to leave the school for having a cell phone in violation of school rules.” They claimed this level of force was justified because she flailed her arms when they tried to arrest her for trespassing.

The abuses extended to less conventional deadly threats as well: When dealing with suspects of gang-related crimes, Chicago police in some cases “will take a young person to a rival gang neighborhood, and either leave the person there, or display the youth to rival members, immediately putting the life of that young person in jeopardy by suggesting he has provided information to the police.”

The examples go on, from a police officer pointing a gun at teens playing basketball on his property to officers shoving underage teenagers and never being held accountable. Simply put, Chicago police use a lot of unnecessary force.

3) The city and police department’s policies exacerbate the problems

The Justice Department is clear in its report: The fault for these issues does not fall solely on a few bad apples. These are systemic problems that arise out of city and police department policies that enable and even encourage terrible behavior.

The Justice Department report found, for example, that Chicago police leaders rarely held officers accountable for excessive use of force:

CPD has not provided officers with adequate guidance to understand how and when they may use force, or how to safely and effectively control and resolve encounters to reduce the need to use force. CPD also has failed to hold officers accountable when they use force contrary to CPD policy or otherwise commit misconduct. This failure to hold officers accountable results in some officers remaining with the Department when they should have been relieved of duty. These officers often continue their misconduct including, at times, again using unreasonable deadly force. More broadly, these failures result in officers not having the skills or tools necessary to use force wisely and lawfully, and they send a dangerous message to officers and the public that unreasonable force by CPD officers will be tolerated.

But it’s not just tolerance; at times the police department appears to engage in an active cover-up — particularly through “a code of silence” and by hiding evidence. In fact, even city investigators charged with holding cops accountable “directly sought to influence officers’ statements — in the officer’s favor — by asking unnecessary leading questions during investigative interviews.”

The code of silence extends to cases in which police officers are accused of domestic assault and rape, including one case in which an officer had a 19-year history of physically abusing his wife and another in which an officer described a victim who accused him of rape as “an easy lay.”

What’s more, everyone seems to be well aware of the problem: “The City, police officers, and leadership within CPD and its police officer union acknowledge that a code of silence among Chicago police officers exists, extending to lying and affirmative efforts to conceal evidence.”

One particularly striking statistic: More than 30,000 complaints are made against the Chicago Police Department every year. But while the department sustains less than 2 percent of those complaints, most are never investigated at all. The city of Chicago, in fact, “does not investigate the majority of cases it is required by law to investigate,” the Justice Department found.

The report also suggested that the events that unfolded after the McDonald shooting — an officer claims that the victim was a threat, only for video evidence to show he was not in fact a threat — are not atypical.

“We found many circumstances in which officers’ accounts of force incidents were later discredited, in whole or part, by video evidence,” the Justice Department concluded. “Given the numerous use-of-force incidents without video evidence … the pattern of unreasonable force is likely even more widespread than we were able to discern through our investigation.”

Police also acknowledged the problems, saying that the issues make them feel unsafe as well. “We found profoundly low morale nearly every place we went within CPD,” the Justice Department said. “Officers generally feel that they are insufficiently trained and supported to do their work effectively.”

Basically, everyone within the city government is aware of the problems. But at least until the Justice Department stepped in, they have been allowed to fester.

The bottom line: The Chicago Police Department is deeply flawed

A Chicago police officer. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The only possible conclusion out of the Justice Department report is that the Chicago Police Department is broken. Not only were the Justice Department’s findings verified by data and public records, but city officials and police officers acknowledged many of the flaws as well.

The city is already taking some steps to alleviate concerns, including by reforming an independent review board that’s meant to hold officers accountable, reviewing use-of-force policies, reworking how cops respond to mental health crises, and speeding up the implementation of its body camera program.

But the Justice Department called for further reforms, including more efforts to better enforce accountability, changing how officers are rewarded and promoted, revising use of force policies further, and making the police department and its data more transparent.

Still, it’s worth emphasizing that these findings may not be exclusive to Chicago. Whether it’s Baltimore, Cleveland, New Orleans, or Ferguson, Missouri, the Justice Department has found horrific constitutional violations in how police use force, how they target minority residents, how they stop and ticket people, and virtually every other aspect of policing. These issues come up time and time again, no matter the city that federal investigators look at.

In that sense, it’s not just Chicago policing that’s flawed, but American policing as a whole.

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