[Rushtalk] DOJ's Chicago Probe Could Expose How We Fail To Punish Bad Cops

Carl Spitzer lynux at keepandbeararms.com
Tue Dec 15 13:05:14 MST 2015

DOJ's Chicago Probe Could Expose How We Fail To Punish Bad Cops

Investigators will likely focus on accountability systems that don't
hold police accountable.
        Ryan J. Reilly Justice Reporter, The Huffington Post
12/08/2015 04:08 pm ET

WASHINGTON -- Justice Department officials hope the broad federal civil
rights probe of the Chicago Police Department launched Monday will
eventually serve as an example of how other troubled law enforcement
agencies can fix problems with investigating and punishing police

"There's a lot of places in this country where policing is bad and where
intervention is necessary," said Jonathan M. Smith, who until earlier
this year ran the small Justice Department unit that investigates civil
rights violations by police. But the Civil Rights Division unit didn't
-- and doesn't -- have the resources to investigate all the law
enforcement agencies with problems. So it tries to pick targets that can
serve as examples. 

"It's important for the division, with limited resources, to make
decisions that are strategic," Smith said. "Reading the tea leaves, my
guess is the [Chicago] investigation will very much focus on
accountability, which is a huge problem in a lot of jurisdictions."

 Scott Olson/Getty Images Demonstrators protest the police shooting
death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago on Dec. 7, 2015. 
The Chicago investigation follows the November release of a
year-old video showing a police officer shooting and killing 17-year-old
Laquan McDonald. Cops' initial accounts of the incident conflicted with
the evidence of the video. Those differences and the long delay between
the October 2014 shooting and the November 2015 charges against Officer
Jason Van Dyke -- paired with data showing widespread issues with how
Chicago handles citizen complaints against police -- have raised
questions about the mechanisms of accountability. 

There's a surprising lack of information -- and no national standards --
on how internal affairs offices in law enforcement agencies across the
U.S. handle citizen complaints. The Chicago investigation could produce
the most comprehensive look at how one of those accountability systems
works -- or doesn't.

Previous Justice Department investigations have highlighted problems
like discriminatory policing aimed at minority communities, systemic
failure to handle rape cases and patterns of troublesome pedestrian
encounters. The recent investigation in Ferguson, Missouri, spotlighted
profit-driven policing and an abusive municipal court system. 

But like many other recent Justice Department investigations, the
Ferguson probe also identified accountability failures, finding the city
lacked "any meaningful system for holding officers accountable" for
violating the law or department policy. In a Cleveland probe, internal
investigators admitted that they conducted inquiries with the "goal of
casting the accused officer in the most positive light possible," while
another federal report found that internal investigators in Newark, New
Jersey, "routinely failed to probe officers' accounts or assess officer

There is little doubt that Chicago's disciplinary process will now come
under Justice Department scrutiny. Recent data collected by the
Chicago-based Invisible Institute showed that nearly 96 percent of
civilian complaints against the city's police force were not sustained,
and roughly 99 percent were not sustained when the complainant was
black, though race was not identified in many cases. And Illinois
Attorney General Lisa Madigan has specifically asked the Justice
Department to look at excessive force and "the lack of accountability
for such abuse."

At a press conference Monday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said
that looking at "how a police department not only tracks but resolves
and disciplines" for misuse of force is a "key element" in the type of
pattern-or-practice investigation that her department is conducting.

There's a lot unknown. "The standards among internal affairs is just so
variable that it's hard to get a handle on it," policing expert Geoffrey
Alpert told The Huffington Post earlier this year. "There's some really
good internal affairs departments around the country; then there's some
really bad ones."

Policing expert Samuel Walker had similarly said there's a "terrible
void" of information about how internal affairs units work and that
internal affairs officers often have no specialized training and have
been pushed into a role they didn't choose.

"Most officers don't want that job. They don't want to have to
investigate their fellow officers," Walker told HuffPost. "So in some
departments, they more or less get drafted. Now having someone there
against his or her will is not a path to professionalism."

Accountability systems are "at the core" of understanding what's
happening within a police department and fixing problems, said Smith,
the former Justice official. The internal affairs process "should
identify not just bad apples, but it should identify broken systems," he

"You're never going to have a perfect police department -- people are
going to make mistakes. You're going to make mistakes in hiring; you're
going to make mistakes in training. An officer is going to make a
mistake on the street," Smith said. "The hallmark of a well-functioning
institution is that those mistakes are identified and that there are
measures taken to address whatever the problem was that led to the

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