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Justice Department Launches Civil Rights Investigation Into Chicago Police Department


In this hour, we look at the use of force by police, first in Chicago and then Cincinnati, where reforms have changed policing for the better. We'll begin with today's announcement from the U.S. Department of Justice. They are launching a broad civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department. This follows the uproar over several fatal police shootings there. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For the 23rd time since President Obama took office, his Justice Department has opened a wide-ranging investigation into local law enforcement. This time, federal civil rights investigators will be working especially close to home. The subject of the investigation is the police department in Chicago where the president lived and where Rahm Emanuel, his former chief of staff, now serves as mayor. Attorney General Loretta Lynch promised the work would be independent and thorough.


LORETTA LYNCH: Every American expects and deserves the protection of law enforcement that is effective, that is responsive, that is respectful and, most importantly, constitutional.

JOHNSON: The Constitution bars police from using excessive force on long-standing allegation against local law enforcement in Chicago. This year, the city council voted to pay millions of dollars in reparations to victims of police violence, many of them African-American. But the apparent catalyst for DOJ was the release of a video that shows a white policeman shoot dead a black teen who carried a small knife - 16 bullets altogether. The attorney general says her civil rights investigators will be looking for a pattern of abuses.


LYNCH: We'll be looking at how force, including deadly force, is handled, investigated and how officers are held accountable for that. So that's our focus right now.

JOHNSON: The discipline system for officers accused of misconduct will come under special scrutiny. On Sunday, the head of Chicago's independent police review board resigned. He'll be replaced by a former federal prosecutor. Lynch says when people lose trust in police, victims and witnesses to crime don't speak up, making public safety problems even worse.


LYNCH: When community members feel ignored, let down or mistreated by public safety officials, there are profound consequences for the well-being of their communities.

JOHNSON: Lynch says civil rights investigators will reach out to people in Chicago who may have had bad experiences with police, and they'll ask rank-and-file police officers if they're getting the training and support they need.

In the end, she says, the Justice Department is interested in ways to improve the Chicago police just as authorities tried through investigations in Ferguson, Miss., Seattle and Cleveland. The Justice Department offered no timetable for the investigation, but federal officials pledge to make their findings public when their work is done. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.