By Bill Ruthhart and Timothy M. Phelps and Hal Dardick
The U.S. Justice Department announced a civil rights investigation Monday into the use of deadly force by Chicago cops, prompting Mayor Rahm Emanuel to make what just days ago would have been considered a stunning admission: He needs the federal government's help to clean up his police department.
"The Department of Justice is coming in," Emanuel said. "We welcome it, accept it and need it. It's in our self-interests as a city."
The mayor's blunt assessment that the Chicago Police Department's "long history" of problems -- excessive force, poor oversight and lax discipline -- is so deep-seated that City Hall can't fix it alone came just hours after U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced she has launched a wide-ranging civil rights investigation into the department. Emanuel's remarks also completed his 180-degree turnabout on a federal investigation, which he had called "misguided" just five days earlier.
Lynch said the "pattern and practice investigation" will look at the use of deadly force and the measures in place to hold officers accountable, issues that have come to the forefront in Chicago after a judge last month forced Emanuel to release the video of a police shooting that recently led prosecutors to charge an officer with murder.
"We understand that the same systems that fail community members also fail conscientious officers by creating mistrust between law enforcement and the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect," Lynch said at a Washington, D.C., news conference. "This mistrust from members of the community makes it more difficult to gain help with investigations, to encourage victims and witnesses of crimes to speak up and to fulfill the most basic responsibilities of public safety officials. And when suspicion and hostility is allowed to fester, it can erupt into unrest."
Emanuel has faced plenty of that, in the form of protests and calls for him to resign, after he released the police video showing Jason Van Dyke, a white officer, repeatedly shooting a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, first as he walked away and later as he lay in the middle of Pulaski Road on the Southwest Side.
The mayor's Monday news conference marked his latest attempt to seize control of a controversy that has roiled for nearly two weeks. Emanuel already had stood by his police superintendent, only later to fire him. He had already opposed the Justice Department probe before welcoming it. And he'd already defended how the city investigates police shootings, before calling for "complete and total reform."
To help drive a sense of reform, Emanuel formally announced that Sharon Fairley would take over as chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority, the civilian agency that investigates allegations of excessive force by police. The agency's previous head, Scott Ando, resigned over the weekend.
On Friday, the Tribune published an examination that found the city's system for investigating police shootings is broken. Of the 409 police shootings since IPRA was created in September 2007, only two have led to allegations against a police officer being found credible, the agency's records show.
Neither Emanuel or Fairley addressed specifics on how IPRA would move past its woeful track record in investigating shootings. Instead, Fairley read from a brief statement.
"The city is at a crossroads today, and there can be no doubt that change is in the air, is on the horizon," said Fairley, who had served as the city's first deputy inspector general and worked eight years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago. "Yet the mission of IPRA will remain the same: thorough, fair and timely investigation of police officer misconduct."
The agency's mission and results have proved to be two different things, however. Under Emanuel, Chicago police officials stopped participating in roundtable meetings with IPRA to discuss officer shootings, a change that came with the knowledge of the mayor's office, the Tribune has reported.
Emanuel was asked Monday why he had been reactive in shaking up the leadership of the Police Department and reforming the civilian review board instead of being proactive to fix obvious shortcomings before the McDonald shooting. The mayor did not directly answer the question, saying his focus now was to ensure that future changes aren't "a half-baked effort of reform that do not meet the challenge."
Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, called the ouster of Ando and appointment of Fairley "damage control" from the mayor and added that Emanuel did not take the lead in calling for a Justice Department investigation.
"I think if everyone around you is saying DOJ needs to come in and you're the only one saying there's no need, I think you soon see the error of your ways and change course," said Beale, the former chairman of the City Council Police and Fire Committee.
Still, the Far South Side alderman said he hopes the investigation has a chance to remedy longstanding problems in the Police Department and goes beyond excessive force to look at the department's hiring rules, which he said have held down the number of minorities on the force.
"I think this is going to have a golden opportunity for the Justice Department to come in and clean up what we've been talking about for so many years, the injustices that happen within the Police Department going all the way from hiring to firing," Beale said.
During her D.C. news conference, Lynch was asked whether the federal civil rights investigation would extend to the mayor's and state's attorney's offices. Both times, Lynch said the probe would center on the Police Department's practices.
The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus on Monday called for Lynch to expand her probe to include IPRA and the state's attorney's office, but it left out the mayor's office.
At his news conference, Emanuel sought to hold up McDonald's shooting as the deciding moment that should cause Chicago to transcend decades worth of systemic police misconduct.
"When you look at Laquan McDonald and other instances, and they go way back in history and they're current, that none of the things that we've done in the past have measured up to the scope, the scale and the consequences of what needs to be done," Emanuel said. "I believe as a city, I believe as a Police Department and I believe as your mayor, we are at an inflection point, and we must make a series of decisions that are different, so the outgrowth is not just another oversight body but a reinvigorated city that has the accountability, the discipline as well as the transparency in place."
Left out of the mayor's remarks was any mention of his decision to spend the better part of a year fighting in court against an open records lawsuit seeking the release of the McDonald shooting video. That has led many activists to allege that the mayor's office was complicit in a cover-up of the shooting, noting that Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez didn't move to charge Van Dyke in the shooting until after Emanuel agreed to follow a judge's order to make the video public.
Also contributing to the cover-up accusations are police reports from the scene of the shooting that differ dramatically from the police dashboard-camera video that recorded the incident. The reports, released by the city late Friday, show that Van Dyke and at least five other officers claimed McDonald moved or turned threateningly toward officers, though the video of the shooting shows McDonald walking away.
Interim police Superintendent John Escalante, who was chief of detectives at the time of the McDonald shooting, was asked how the department cleared Van Dyke of wrongdoing. Escalante gave a rambling explanation and implied that the police reports merely documented Van Dyke's account and ultimately led to the murder charges against him.
"That is why when the video showed that his statements did not match the video, he was charged with murder," Escalante said. "There was no attempt to try to get his statements to match the evidence. Quite the contrary. The officers took his statements as they were, and those statements ultimately led to the charging of murder."
Emanuel and Escalante ignored repeated questions about whether the other officers who filed police reports corroborating Van Dyke's story were still on the street. The Police Department has said the other officers on the scene have not been disciplined for their roles or put on desk duty. During the Washington news conference, Chicago U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to address the police report issue, citing his office's ongoing federal criminal investigation into the case.
The broader civil rights probe into the Police Department's practices is a separate, systemic review, but it's unclear how long such an investigation will take. Pressed for a time frame, Lynch would not give one, only promising a "thorough, independent and impartial" investigation.
She said the Justice Department will look into whether Chicago police have engaged in constitutional violations and whether there has been a pattern of abuse. If a pattern of violations is found, the Justice Department will seek a "court-enforceable agreement with the Chicago Police Department," Lynch said.
The attorney general said federal officials want to hear from community members who feel victimized by police, as well as from rank-and-file officers. Fardon called the investigation "important and positive" for the city.
The investigation is the latest probe launched under a 1994 civil rights law passed after the Rodney King beating by police in Los Angeles. It will be carried out by the Civil Rights Division, directed by Vanita Gupta, a former ACLU lawyer.
In the heat of his news conference, Emanuel welcomed the scrutiny.
"We need a third party in this city because in the past instances ... we've never, ever as a city measured up with the changes on a sustained basis to finally deal in whole cloth with that situation," the mayor said. "So you have my commitment, in every fiber of my body, to not only work with the Justice Department in the sense of cooperativeness, but then all use my energy to bring that level of reform and change."
Tribune reporter John Byrne contributed. Bill Ruthhart and Hal Dardick reported from Chicago; Timothy M. Phelps reported from Washington.
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