- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2015

The Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department to examine officers’ use of force on Monday, the same day the local state’s attorney announced that charges would not be filed against an officer who fatally shot a man in the back as he fled from police with a gun in hand.

Meanwhile, heads continued to roll, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel firing the administrator of the city’s police review board less than a week after he axed Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. Mr. Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff in his first administration, has faced calls himself to step down over his handling of the city’s security crisis.

The trigger for the wave of turmoil was the release of a police dashboard camera video nearly two weeks ago that showed the fatal shooting of a black 17-year-old by a white Chicago police officer. Laquan McDonald was killed in the October 2014 shooting by Officer Jason Van Dyke, who fired 16 shots at the teenager as the boy started to veer away from a group of police.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department investigation, which is separate from an existing federal probe of McDonald’s death, will look into whether the Chicago Police Department “engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law,” specifically with regard to deadly use of force and any racial disparity in officers’ use of force. Such probes, used to identify systemic deficiencies within a troubled agency, have also recently been undertaken with the Baltimore and Ferguson police departments.

Members of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division will conduct the investigation and Ms. Lynch said investigators hope to hear from community members about their interactions with police as well as from officers themselves. The attorney general argued that a thorough probe would be benefit honest police officers on the street as well.

“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,” Ms. Lynch said. “And when suspicion and hostility is allowed to fester, it can erupt into unrest.”

If the investigation uncovers unconstitutional practices, the Justice Department could seek a court-enforceable agreement with the department to institute reforms, a move that Mr. Emanuel said the city would not fight.

“We welcome it and Chicago as a city will be a better for it. We accept it and we need it,” said the Democratic second-term mayor, who had previously called a civil rights investigation into the department “misguided.”

Ms. Lynch declined to give any timeline of the investigation or when officials first began looking into complaints.

But public outcry peaked over the Thanksgiving weekend. Officer Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder just hours after the video’s release on Nov. 24, but protests rolled through the city’s bustling shopping districts over the busy holiday weekend.

Cook County State’s Attorney’s Anita Alvarez declined to bring similar charges in the second videotaped police shooting, noting that there was not sufficient evidence to support charges being brought against Officer George Hernandez for the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ronald Johnson.

During the October 2014 incident, Officer Hernandez fired five shots, striking Johnson twice in the back and killing him as he fled from officers.

Dashboard camera video released Monday shows Johnson running away from officers and into a nearby South Side park as multiple officers give chase and Officer Hernandez opens fire.

Ms. Alvarez said the video shows Johnson carrying a handgun as he flees, though an attorney for Johnson’s family has claimed the gun was planted by police and called her investigation into the shooting “a joke.”

Officers had responded to the area for a report of an earlier shooting, which had actually targeted the car that Johnson was riding in at the time. But Ms. Alvarez said the officers were unaware whether Johnson was a victim or the gunman in the earlier shooting and that he repeatedly ignored commands to drop his weapon — at one point tussling with an officer before trying to flee.

In announcing her decision, Ms. Alvarez seemed prepared for criticism over the fact that Johnson was struck in the back while fleeing police and said that was “one of many factors that had to be carefully considered and evaluated.”

“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,” Ms. Alvarez said.

Michael Oppenheimer, an attorney for the family of Johnson, said Monday that when Officer Hernandez participated in a deposition as part of a wrongful death lawsuit filed over the shooting that the officer said prosecutors had never interviewed him about the shooting. He said the state’s attorney’s decision relied on a flawed investigation done by the Independent Police Review Authority.

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