By Bill Ruthhart and Annie Sweeney
Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday reversed his opposition to a possible U.S. Justice Department review of the Chicago Police Department's practices, the type of investigation that has led to federal court oversight and sweeping reforms in other troubled, big-city police departments throughout the country.
The about-face, coming a day after he called such an idea "misguided," allowed Emanuel to try to save face politically, as his new position put him in line with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, both of whom already had called for the Justice Department to act. Illinois' senior U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez quickly followed suit Thursday, and the White House and Justice Department declined to comment on the prospects of a probe.
Emanuel's decision to "welcome the engagement of the Justice Department" comes with a set of political pros and cons for the mayor, however.
One on hand, ending up with federal investigators and a judge driving change in the department would partially insulate Emanuel from rankling the city's 10,000 police officers, some of whom might be resistant to changes and all of whom live in the city, belong to an influential union and vote. On the other hand, sitting at the helm of a City Hall where a federal eye is needed to ensure proper conduct from cops could leave Emanuel looking like an ineffectual leader unable to deliver changes in a police department with a long history of excessive force and corruption.
Still, even if the Justice Department launches a probe, it could take months to reach conclusions and years if it finds changes are warranted. And there's the added wrinkle of the ongoing criminal investigation that the Chicago U.S. attorney and FBI office are conducting.
The calls for Washington intervention have come amid the fallout of Emanuel releasing a police dashboard camera video of the October 2014 Laquan McDonald shooting, which shows the African-American teenager getting shot repeatedly as he walked away from a white police officer.
A Cook County judge ruled Emanuel had violated state open records laws by not publicly releasing the video and ordered him to do so. Hours before Emanuel released the video last week -- 13 months after the shooting -- Alvarez charged Officer Jason Van Dyke with murder in the case, alleging he shot McDonald 16 times, many of the bullets striking the teen as he lay in the middle of a stretch of South Pulaski Road.
The police department said McDonald was shot after continuing to approach officers, while a police union spokesman said McDonald lunged at officers with a knife. The video later showed that not to be the case, which has contributed to widespread accusations of a cover-up.
A civil rights investigation by the U.S. Justice Department would not be limited to the McDonald case and would represent a much broader and deeper review of the Police Department's practices in the use of deadly and excessive force and how those cases are reported and investigated.
In many cases, such investigations result in a federal consent decree, where the Justice Department and the municipality reach an accord on how to right the Police Department's wrongs and a federal judge oversees the implementation of those changes and appoints a monitor to handle the day-to-day aspects.
The more deeply rooted a police department's dysfunction, the more likely it is to take the power of a consent decree to fix it, said Merrick Bobb, a police practices expert who serves as a federal monitor in Seattle's consent decree and has consulted in Chicago over police stops.
"When they are experiencing deep troubles and it's an issue of culture and generations being trained in a certain way," Bobb said, "the more deeply ingrained that culture is (and) the harder it is to reform without the hammer of the consent decree."
While Alvarez has charged Van Dyke with murder in the McDonald shooting, the federal investigation into the shooting and circumstances surrounding remains ongoing, officials have confirmed.
Within a month of the shooting, Alvarez notified federal authorities, and a joint state and federal investigation was launched.
Witnesses have been brought before a federal grand jury, including the district manager of a Burger King restaurant who recently told the Tribune he testified that several police officers demanded to see the establishment's password-protected surveillance video immediately after the shooting. When they left almost two hours later, the video had an 86-minute gap that included when McDonald was shot, the manager said.
Alvarez and former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who Emanuel fired Tuesday, have said they found no evidence the video was tampered with.
Federal officials previously have prosecuted Chicago police for allegations they covered up fellow officers' behavior. The first time it happened was in 2003, when Edgar Placencio and Ruben Oliveras were convicted on criminal civil rights charges for covering up that corrupt fellow officers had stolen cocaine and then planted some of the drugs on an innocent man.
Talk of a separate Justice Department review in Chicago publicly surfaced Tuesday when Madigan wrote a letter to her federal counterpart, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, requesting a civil rights investigation into the Police Department's use of deadly force and the adequacy of its reviews of such cases.
On Wednesday morning, Emanuel said a wider probe would be "misguided" and suggested the focus remain on the ongoing criminal investigation into the McDonald shooting by U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon and the FBI. But later Wednesday, Clinton sided with Madigan, with a spokesman saying the presidential candidate was "deeply troubled" by the McDonald shooting, adding that "given the gravity of this tragic situation, she supports a full review by the Department of Justice."
By Thursday morning, a full 24 hours after Emanuel resisted a Justice Department review, the mayor changed his tune and released a statement.
"I want to be clear that the city welcomes engagement by the Department of Justice when it comes to looking at the systemic issues embedded in CPD," said Emanuel, who made similar comments to reporters later as Google opened its new West Loop office. "As it relates to a longer-term review of our police department and efforts to improve police accountability, I am open to anything that will help give us answers and restore the trust that is critical to our public safety efforts."
An Emanuel spokesman declined to comment on what, if any, talks the mayor and his administration have had with the Justice Department.
Not all the politicians at the Google event agreed federal supervision of the police department was the right call.
"I don't know that Chicago needs the assistance of the Department of Justice when there's all these other panels and agencies looking at the department," said 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke, a former police officer and longtime powerful City Council Finance Committee chairman. "I don't see any need for it."
Burke, who said he graduated from the police academy in 1965, added that he did not believe there was a pattern of discriminatory policing in Chicago.
"In my opinion, there is no institutional problem," Burke said. "Will there be individual officers who make mistakes? Absolutely. Yes, there will be police officers who either will violate the public trust or will make mistakes."
If Chicago's police department does undergo a civil rights investigation, it could take a while before investigators reach a conclusion on their findings or an agreement with the city to make reforms. For example, a recent federal investigation into Ferguson, Mo., which has 55 sworn officers, took six months, and experts expect a probe of a much larger department such as Chicago would take considerably more time.
The investigations often result in a consent decree. Since President Obama took office, his administration has conducted 22 such investigations, with 16 resulting in agreements with the agencies and 10 taking the form of consent decrees, records show.
Bobb, the police practices expert and executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, said "generally the consent decree improves things and tends to improve things not just in a transitory way, but in a way that is fixed."
But, he said, the process can be tough on officers, though the goal is to improve their working conditions.
"It can be and should be a positive experience. ... Does it mean they don't have some fear in terms of being second-guessed? They do have such fears," Bobb said. "But those things rather quickly dissipate as they see it makes their job safer as they develop a relationship of trust and confidence with the communities at large, particularly the black community."
The legal basis of the Justice Department to examine police and sheriff's departments is rooted in a 1994 law crafted after the Rodney King police beating and riots in 1992. The Los Angeles Police Department eventually entered into a federal consent decree after officers in the Rampart division were implicated for stealing and for framing and beating suspects.
At that time in L.A., the problems were deep, said Connie Rice, a longtime civil rights attorney who helped steer the department's reform efforts.
"There are a lot of police departments that are in this territory. No one has ever demanded that police be transparent, compassionate, professional, empathetic and completely accountable to the public," Rice said. "Never been told you have to think of the poor communities, you have to bond with them. You are not there to do mass arrests and terrorize them."
Rice said Los Angeles, which has had a spike in the number of police-involved shootings this year, has a long way to go. "We are now just touching the third rail of use of force," Rice said. "We have at least another 10 years."
But Rice and Bobb, along with other national experts, agree that Los Angeles has shown strong improvement more than a decade later. And Rice said there are parallels that can be drawn to Chicago.
"LAPD 20 years ago and Chicago PD today, on a scale of 1 to 10, where you find it is OK to cover up murders that are done by police, that is pretty up there. That is a 10," Rice said. "In this country that is about as bad as it gets. I have never seen a department that is at this level of trouble do it without federal oversight and a very strong judge."
Tribune reporters Kim Geiger and Katherine Skiba contributed. Skiba reported from Washington, D.C.
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