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Will Chicago investigation deter police use of force around the U.S.?

The Justice Department will launch a civil rights investigation into how the Chicago police force uses force and whether there are racial or ethnic disparities. Meanwhile, a video released Monday showed another fatal police shooting that occurred last year. William Brangham learns more about the probe from Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta from the Department of Justice.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Chicago's police department and the role of the city's leaders were back in the spotlight today, as questions mounted about accountability, police history and what happened in another fatal shooting.

    The day started with the Justice Department's announcement that it will investigate the city's police force.

    William Brangham has the story.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The official word came from Attorney General Loretta Lynch in Washington: The Justice Department will investigate what it calls — quote — "patterns and practices" by the Chicago police.

  • LORETTA LYNCH, Attorney General:

    What we will be looking at, again, is the Chicago Police Department's method and manner of dealing with use of force, particularly deadly force, and whether or not we find racial, ethnic and other disparities in how they handle those force allegations. It will encompass a number of things, including how officers are disciplined and the disciplinary systems.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel initially opposed a federal civil rights investigation as — quote — "misguided," but, today, he says he welcomed it.

  • MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL, Chicago:

    We're going to cooperate with the Department of Justice as it relates to the police department. And you should hear from me it's in our self-interest as a city for them to be here.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The federal probe follows a furor over the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Last month, the city released police video of the incident, more than a year after it occurred. On it, Officer Jason Van Dyke is seen shooting McDonald 16 times. Police say McDonald had a knife, but, on the video, he appears to be moving away from the officers.

    Van Dyke is now charged with first-degree murder. But there will be no charges in another fatal police shooting from 2014, this one just eight days before the McDonald shooting. Video released today shows officer George Hernandez shooting at a fleeing 25-year-old named Ronald Johnson.

    Police say Johnson had pointed a gun, which they say was found next to his body when he fell.

    State's attorney Anita Alvarez found insufficient evidence to take action against the officer.

  • ANITA ALVAREZ, Cook County State’s Attorney:

    Even though Mr. Johnson was running away from Hernandez and other officers, he was running towards a police vehicle containing two other responding officers and unknown members of the public inside that park.

    Furthermore, Johnson could have easily turned around and quickly fired at the officers pursuing him or even fired as he ran.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The lawyer for Johnson's family denied he had a gun and called the prosecutor's reasoning — quote — "a joke."

  • MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER, Johnson Family Lawyer:

    When they all saw the video, they all said, oh, he was about to turn and point, because they had to justify what Hernandez did. And there simply is no justification.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    For his part, Mayor Emanuel has already fired the police superintendent, and he promised full accountability again today.

  • RAHM EMANUEL:

    I'm taking responsibility for what happened, and I take responsibility for fixing it in this action, and part of every level of government and service is thinking not only about the future of the city of Chicago, doing the things necessary, and making sure that you're held accountable for the results.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Protesters, in turn, say they won't stop their demonstrations, demanding both the mayor and the prosecutor step down.

    Let's look a little deeper into the federal investigation of Chicago's police department and prior work by the Department of Justice in the same vein.

    Vanita Gupta is the assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice. She heads the Civil Rights Division and has led these efforts.

    Welcome.

    Can we talk a little bit about the timing of this? Was this particular case, the killing of Laquan McDonald, was that the impetus for the Justice Department stepping in today?

    VANITA GUPTA, Asst. Attorney General, Department of Justice: The impetus is that we conduct a preliminary review that looks at all of the available evidence, including, of course, the Laquan McDonald incident and response, and we decide whether these — we think that there is enough of a reason for the Justice Department to open a pattern and practice investigation. So we consider a bunch of available information.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    I mean, there's a lot of people in Chicago who, as you know, have been complaining about police and community relations for years in that city. And many of them are saying, why did it take you so long?

  • VANITA GUPTA:

    Well, you know, the Justice Department gets asked to be in a lot of different jurisdictions.

    And we — again, we look at all of the available information. There were obviously many more requests made in the last weeks since the release of that video. We took those very seriously, and examined what was available, and decided this was the time to open up this investigation.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, about the investigation, what are you going to be looking into specifically?

  • VANITA GUPTA:

    So, we're going to be looking at use of force and accountability issues.

    And I will say, these are two very deep, broad areas for a very large department, for the Justice Department to be investigating. We will be looking at the ways in which officers have used force, are trained to use force, the ways of — that they are reporting and being held accountable for incidents where there may be excessive use of force.

    So, we will be looking at a broad range of issues that fall into those two areas.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    And with regards to the McDonald case in particular, there's a lot of people in Chicago who believe that there was a cover-up, that not just the police department, but that all the way up to city hall, there was an attempt to suppress the evidence about this particular killing.

    Can the Justice Department investigate that as well? Will you investigate that?

  • VANITA GUPTA:

    So, that is a separate criminal matter.

    And, obviously, the criminal investigators will be looking at all the available evidence pertaining to that particular matter. But the work that — the investigation that we announced today is a civil pattern and practice investigation. And that is really aimed at looking at whether there is a pattern and practice of constitutional violations being committed by the Chicago Police Department in the areas of use of force and accountability.

    We will, obviously, consider a particular individual incident as we look at whether there's a pattern or practice, but this is separate from criminal investigations.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, let's say you do find a pattern or a practice. What happens then? How do you try to stamp that out?

  • VANITA GUPTA:

    Yes, so after — if we do find that upon kind of a thorough review, we will then issue our findings publicly. It's something that we think is important for the American public to be — to understand and be aware of kind of what we have looked at and what we found.

    And then we would seek to negotiate through a collaborative negotiation an agreement with the city to remedy the problems that we found. And in the vast majority of jurisdictions where the Justice Department goes in, we are able to achieve a negotiated settlement that then will be court-enforceable with a monitor, and that seeks to remedy all the constitutional violations that we found.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Our colleagues at "Frontline" and The Washington Post did an investigation, or really an examination, of a lot of prior instances where the Justice Department tried to fix problems within police departments around the country, and the results were mixed.

    They found examples of use of force going up in some departments after the settlements. Morale plummeted in others. Community relations in many were still deeply troubled.

    Why do you think Chicago will be different?

  • VANITA GUPTA:

    So, just for something that I think is important to understand about our investigations, is, when we actually achieve an agreement to remedy these problems, we will often, in those jurisdictions, see spikes in reporting because there actually is data collection, there's tracking.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Because people are just paying more attention.

  • VANITA GUPTA:

    They're paying more attention. They have more confidence in the actual systems that we have put in place.

    And so that is actually quite typical of our investigations. We have also been recently in places like East Haven, Connecticut, and Seattle, Washington, where they have really transformed the way that they are engaged in using force, when they are using force, what kind of accountability systems they have in place.

    And it is resulting in very significant reductions in the uses of force, while keeping crime and violent crime down. And I think that that's really important. In places like East Haven, we have been able to document transformed relationships between the community and law enforcement.

    And so these are — you know, look, policing is a very complex — it's a set of complex issues. And I think that we have been working very collaboratively along the process with law enforcement, with community, listening to them directly about what they're experiencing every day in order to come out with the best kind of police department that the community deserves in these jurisdictions.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The head of the FBI, James Comey, has said that all of these criticisms of police, all of these investigations may in some way be causing police to step back and not doing their job as effectively.

    Do you think that that's true? And, if so, do you worry that yet another investigation could suppress the work that police are trying to do, because they're scared?

  • VANITA GUPTA:

    Well, so Director Comey actually said that Justice Department scrutiny is critical to the field of policing.

    But what he did say — and there's obviously a robust discussion right now about these issues around whether there is de-policing or not. And I think the reality is, there is no data to back up the assertions. We know that law enforcement every day, police officers every day are continuing to do what they do every day, which is to put themselves in danger to protect the rest of us.

    And, obviously, though, we are interested in accumulating and collecting data. But, for now, there is nothing to contradict what police officers, what we're hearing police officers say around the country.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The attorney general in her announcement today said she hoped that this investigation would also serve as a deterrent to other police forces.

    Is there any evidence that that actually happens?

  • VANITA GUPTA:

    Well, I have spent a lot of the last year speaking directly with law enforcement, with police agencies and the like.

    And what they are doing right now is, I think, quite laudable. They're looking at our consent decrees. They're examining the president's report on 21st century policing. They are trying to take proactive steps to ensure that, if there is a critical incident, that it doesn't create mass civil unrest and that they are preempting, through training, through policies, through changes that they are voluntarily undertaking, so that they can have constitutional policing, while keeping the public safe and, frankly, not have a pattern and practice investigation if that can be held off.

    And so I actually think there is a very robust conversation happening right now around the country among law enforcement on a whole range of these issues.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    All right, acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, thank you very much.

  • VANITA GUPTA:

    Thank you.

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