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Chicago Police Often Used Excessive Force, DOJ Report Finds


The U.S. Justice Department has released a scathing report that accuses the Chicago police of systematic use of excessive force. The report is the Obama administration's final significant action in its campaign for police reform. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste joins us now. Martin, thanks so much for being with us.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: You're welcome.

SIMON: Let's remember the background. What exactly has the Justice Department said about Chicago police?

KASTE: Well, this report comes after that really controversial shooting of the young black man named Laquan McDonald. He was shot back in 2014. When the video finally came out, it looked as though he was fleeing police at the moment he was shot. And the outrage caused by that video triggered the Justice Department to do this investigation. And after about a year of investigating, the DOJ is now saying that excessive force happens too much, that the Chicago Police Department uses deadly force and other kinds of force, such as the use of Tasers, too frequently in cases often where it's not justified. And they say the police department doesn't do an adequate job investigating those uses of force, disciplining officers or training them.

SIMON: What concrete effect could a report like this have on the everyday function of the police department?

KASTE: Well, that's where the whole question of the timing of this report really becomes important because normally, at least over the last eight years or so, a report like this would have been the first step in the Justice Department's pressure on a local police department to reform. The report would be sort of a public shaming, which would then set things up for the city to enter into negotiations to set up what's called a consent decree. And what a consent decree is is basically a legally binding plan for reform with a federal judge monitoring the process. They don't have one of those yet in Chicago. They basically ran out of time. And it's not clear right now whether the new administration when President Trump takes office will be interested in having one. The nominee to run the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions, has expressed some skepticism over the past about consent decrees. He says sometimes they could, in his words, smear a whole police department because of the misdeeds of a few officers.

SIMON: Chicago's Mayor Emanuel has made a point of starting reforms in training and police oversight. Do they really need a consent decree with the federal government?

KASTE: Well, reformers say that historically those noble intentions in many big cities that have had these problems - those noble intentions kind of fade away over time, that the pressure against reform is pretty intense. This is how the U.S. attorney in Chicago, Zach Fardon, put it yesterday.


ZACH FARDON: The problems that we discovered are long-standing, in some cases decades old, and prior efforts at reform in Chicago's history, there have been many. They have not gotten the job done.

KASTE: So reformers would say without that extra pressure from a federally enforced consent decree reforms don't happen. I should point out that the mayor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has said he wants to enter into a binding consent decree, but he says he can't negotiate the Trump administration side of that. If they're not interested, it may not happen.

SIMON: Yeah. What's been the reaction from the Chicago Police Department, especially when we take a look at the enormous increase in shootings and murders over the last year and the accusation against the police that they haven't been patrolling as vigorously as they used to?

KASTE: Well, Chicago cops have really low morale right now, and that's something even this report talks about. And when you talk to regular cops, many of them say they think that surge in violence is in part because of all the criticism they've been undergoing for the last few years, that they've been told to basically hold off on some basic kinds of street enforcement because they're worried about the backlash. And they say that that's emboldened those young people who carry guns to go ahead and shoot each other. That's not a narrative that the current Justice Department buys into, but there's a chance that the next administration would see their point.

SIMON: NPR's Martin Kaste, thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.