In Chicago, Another Federal Investigation of Police, but Will It Really Matter?

Charles F. Coleman Jr.
Demonstrators clash with police during a protest following the release of a video showing Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing Laquan McDonald on Nov. 24, 2015, in Chicago.  
Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Monday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a new Department of Justice investigation into the practices of the Chicago Police Department. This comes in the wake of newly released statements from Chicago police regarding the shooting death of Laquan McDonald by Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke that seriously contradict what can plainly be seen in the dash-cam video from the shooting, and as a new controversial video surfaces that appears to show a Chicago police officer shoot Ronald Johnson in the back as Johnson is running away from the cops.

Lynch’s announcement is modestly encouraging. A federal probe is likely to uncover the truth about a police department that for decades has been rumored to be wrought with unethical practices. However, it is hard not to feel that we’ve been here before. In fact, it seems as if we are seeing this same movie almost every month, and no matter how intense the buildup, the finale is always anti-climactic.


Over the past two years, the Department of Justice has investigated several cities to ascertain whether there was a pattern or practice of discrimination or an intentional violation of citizens’ civil rights. We have seen it in Ferguson, Mo., as well as in Cleveland, Baltimore (ongoing) and now Chicago, just to name a few cities.

Ferguson: We all know that former Officer Darren Wilson was not charged with any federal civil rights charges as a result of killing Michael Brown. The DOJ did find widespread practices of discrimination and the violation of citizens’ civil rights by top brass. These findings were mirrored by and explored in more depth through the Ferguson Commission, appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to examine the socioeconomic and political issues in the city. The DOJ’s investigation resulted in a consent decree, which is essentially an agreed-upon but enforceable settlement that mandates a host of measures intended to bring about reform.


Cleveland: The federal investigation into police practices in Cleveland also revealed a host of civil rights violations and widespread problems with policing. The result? Another consent decree that contains a slew of provisions intended to provide greater oversight, increase levels of diversity among the police force and ultimately protect the rights of all Cleveland residents equally, regardless of their color.

These findings have hardly come as a surprise to many within our community. In plain speak, folks who have been complaining about black people catching hell by police are not making it up. These results weren’t as earth-shattering to any of us as they seemed to be to white America. But to the human eye, it’s hard to see a real difference after any federal investigation has taken place.


Federal consent decrees are a great idea: The municipalities avoid going to court and spending money defending what both sides already know is indefensible, and the feds get to justify their own existence while also saving the resources required to go to court (even for what would be a guaranteed win). Consent decrees are generally preferred by both parties and can be enforced by federal judges. They are also usually specific in terms of their remedies so that all sides are clear as to what is required and what benchmarks are needed to achieve compliance.

But the issue with consent decrees that call for sweeping reform is who ends up paying for it. Federal consent decrees in these situations often call for reform that can be costly to cities. Those expenses aren’t covered by the feds, and so, to comply with the agreement, local politicians end up passing on the costs to the very citizens that the measures are intended to protect and assist. Think about that: You’ve already violated someone’s rights—that’s been proved by an independent investigation. To add insult to injury (literally), you will now raise taxes on the same population you initially violated (oftentimes the working poor) to pay for the remedies for the problems you created. This sort of double victimization is enough to make anyone feel caught in a no-win situation.


Change takes time. That’s abundantly clear. But many of these federal probes are disappointing because while they often validate widespread claims of impropriety, seldom do we see these probes result in individual prosecutions or visible differences that offer any real solace to those who have been wronged.

Attorney General Lynch has a unique opportunity to bring individual charges against Van Dyke because the egregious contradictions between his account of the shooting and what is seen in the dash-cam video would certainly seem to establish probable cause for a civil rights violation and prosecution. However, only time will tell there. As for what will come from the latest DOJ investigation of police practices, we can only hope that the results will be more than what we have seen thus far.


Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights trial attorney, legal analyst and former Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor. He is also a professor of criminal justice at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter

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