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Federal probe slams ‘pattern of excessive force’ by Chicago police

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CHICAGO, IL – JANUARY 13: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (R) and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson (L) listen as U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks at a press conference on January 13, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. Lynch called the press conference to announce the release of a report which cited widespread abuses by officers in the Chicago police department following a 13-month investigation. Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP

A year-long federal investigation into the Chicago police force has identified a pattern of abuse and excessive force, especially in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Friday.

“The Department of Justice has concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the Chicago police department engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution,” Lynch told a news conference in the city.

The use of unreasonable force “falls heaviest on predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods,” the Justice Department said in a statement accompanying the release of a 164-page report.

The report, coming as one of the last official acts of President Barack Obama’s Justice Department, largely confirmed the complaints many blacks and Latinos have made for years in Chicago — that they are disproportionately the targets of police abuse.

The investigation was opened in December 2015, provoked by the highly publicized shooting death of a black adolescent, Laquan McDonald, by a white officer as McDonald was walking in the middle of a street.

The authorities had waited more than a year to make public a video of the 17-year-old’s shooting, sparking a wave of anger.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former close adviser to Obama, was accused by political opponents of trying to cover up the incident, and he fired then police superintendent Garry McCarthy.

– ‘Racially discriminatory conduct’ –

The report said Chicago police had “tolerated racially discriminatory conduct that not only undermines police legitimacy, but also contributes to the pattern or practice of unreasonable force,” and that Justice’s investigation had been undercut by a “code of silence” among officers.

The report said that the police “must show communities racked with violence that their police force cares about them and has not abandoned them, regardless of where they live or the color of their skin.”

It said police had Tased people for failing to follow simple commands and had shot people who posed no real threat.

The city and police department have agreed to a series of reforms supervised by an independent monitor.

In a broad and damning analysis, Lynch said that Chicago police training procedures were “severely deficient,” and that the department failed to adequately review officers’ use of force to determine whether it was appropriate, lawful — or “could have been avoided altogether.”

All those problems, Lynch said, were “compounded by poor supervision and oversight, leading to low officer morale.”

She added that the “vast majority” of Chicago’s 12,000 police officers were performing admirably and that the city and the police department had already taken “encouraging steps.”

But she said there was “still considerable work to be done — work that will require federal partnership and independent oversight.”

– A Trump effect? –

It is not clear, however, how the agreement might be affected by the incoming US administration of Donald Trump. Trump has vocally supported aggressive law enforcement. And his nominee to succeed Lynch at the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions, has criticized the sort of consent agreement Chicago is now negotiating with federal officials.

But Mayor Emanuel said Friday that the city and its police were “already on the road to reform — and there are no U-turns on that road.” He said use-of-force policies were being upgraded, and every officer would be equipped with body cameras and with Tasers to be used “as a less-lethal force option.”

Over the past two decades, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division has opened more than 69 investigations into police departments, including 25 since Obama came to office in 2009. These can lead to a variety of outcomes, from court-enforced plans to consent agreements with or without court involvement. Many legal experts expect fewer of these under Trump.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who had urged Lynch to conduct the review, on Friday commended her and Emanuel for progress made so far and vowed to “work to ensure that the Department of Justice under the incoming administration takes its responsibility seriously.”

The Justice Department, in the course of its investigation, interviewed and met with city leaders, police officials and officers, and residents. It studied investigative files on use-of-force incidents that included more than 170 officer-involved shootings.

Chicago, the third-largest US city, has faced a surging problem with violence in recent years — there were 750 homicides there last year alone, a 10-year high, and more than 3,500 shootings.

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