AG: Justice Department investigating if Chicago police broke law

Posted at 11:07 AM, Dec 07, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-07 11:10:23-05

The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into whether the Chicago police engaged in “a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Monday.

Saying that failing to hold police accountable for misconduct creates “profound consequences for the well-being of … communities,” Lynch said the probe will focus on use of force, deadly force, accountability and how the Chicago police Department “tracks and treats” those incidents.

“When suspicion and hostility is allowed to fester it can erupt into unrest,” she said.

The investigation will not home in on individuals but will aim to “improve systems,” Lynch said.

Calls for a federal probe intensified after Chicago police released a video on November 24 that showed Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times last year.

The announcement of a pattern-and-practice investigation comes after the city’s weekend release of police reports from the scene that contradict what’s seen on the video.

It also follows Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointment of a new leader to the authority that investigates police shooting incidents, such as the McDonald and Ronald Johnson cases, that have sparked political upheaval and demonstrations in the city in recent weeks.

Leadership changes in Chicago

Sharon Fairley will be chief administrator for the city’s Independent Police Review Authority, replacing Scott Ando, a veteran Drug Enforcement Administration agent who joined the IPRA in 2011 and took its reins last year. Fairley was general counsel to the city’s Office of the Inspector General and previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney where she prosecuted national security, financial and government fraud cases.

“Sharon brings the experience and independence to ensure that when an officer breaks the rules, they will be held accountable,” the mayor said in a statement, adding that “new leadership is required as we rededicate ourselves to dramatically improving our system of police accountability and rebuilding trust.”

This follows a series initiatives taken by Emanuel’s office in the last two weeks, including expanding the body camera program, asking for the resignation of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and establishing a task force to review police discipline procedures, according to the statement.

The City Council formed the IPRA in 2007 “in response to concerns about how allegations of police misconduct were being investigated,” according to its website. It is staffed by civilian investigators charged with independently reviewing allegations against police.

Police accounts at odds with video

Video from the McDonald shooting in October 2014 shows the 17-year-old, armed with a knife, approaching police cars in the street before veering away from officers who had their guns trained on him. None of the eight or more officers on the scene fires a weapon, but within six seconds of exiting his vehicle, Officer Jason Van Dyke begins unloading the 16-round magazine in his 9mm pistol. McDonald was about 10 feet away when Van Dyke opened fire.

Only two of those shots, one to the lower back and another to the upper leg, were definitively fired while McDonald was still standing, according to a criminal complaint. And though it states that only a single shot to McDonald’s right hand was definitively fired after he hit the asphalt, the complaint also notes that McDonald was on the ground for about 13 of the 14 or 15 seconds that it took Van Dyke to empty his magazine.

In the police report released over the weekend, some officers described McDonald as aggressively coming at Van Dyke — who is now charged with first-degree murder — while waving the knife and ignoring orders to drop the weapon.

In accounts at odds with video of the incident, some officers said McDonald continued moving and attempting to get up, with the knife still in his hand, after falling to the ground after Van Dyke fired his weapon.

One officer said he believed McDonald was attacking the officers and “attempting to kill them” when Van Dyke opened fire.

Van Dyke had been on site less than 30 seconds, and out of his car for six seconds, when he started shooting, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has said.

Van Dyke told investigators that McDonald was “swinging the knife in an aggressive, exaggerated manner” and raising the weapon above his shoulder from about 10 to 15 feet away, according to the reports.

One handwritten report, which refers to Van Dyke by his initials and McDonald as the offender, said: “VD believed O (offender) was attacking with knife … trying to kill VD … In defense of his life VD backpedaled + fired … O fell to the ground, continued to move/grasp the knife … VD continued firing. O appeared to be attempting to get up, still holding the knife, pointing at VD.”

In one report, Van Dyke is quoted as saying that from his training he knew that an assailant with a knife posed a deadly threat, possibly hurling the weapon at the officer. Van Dyke also referred to a Chicago Police Department bulletin warning officers of a knife capable of firing a bullet. A copy of the bulletin was included in the report.

The Chicago Police Department said the IPRA is conducting the investigation into McDonald’s killing.

“If the criminal investigation concludes that any officer participated in any wrongdoing, we will take swift action,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement.

Video of another police shooting

With aftershocks from the release of the video showing McDonald’s shooting still rumbling through Chicago, a dashcam video of another fatal police shooting is about to be released.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday the city will release video showing the death of Ronald Johnson, 25, more than a year ago, according to CNN affiliate WLS-TV.

There was no indication from city officials on when the video would be made public, but U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang was already scheduled to decide Thursday whether to compel the city to release the dashcam video.

Johnson was shot and killed by Officer George Hernandez in October 2014.

According to a preliminary police statement released the same day as the shooting, Johnson pointed a weapon at pursuing officers, after first attempting to flee on foot.

Johnson’s family does not believe the official account, and his mother has accused the city of a cover-up. She has repeatedly said that the video will prove her son was not posing a threat to officers when he was killed.