CHICAGO - Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Monday the launching of an investigation into the Chicago Police Department for possible civil rights and other violations.
The investigation comes as the police force is under intense scrutiny since the recent release of a video showing white police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. The announcement also comes just ahead of the expected release of similar footage in another young black man's death at the hands of an officer.
Lynch said the investigation will focus on the department's "use of force, including its use of deadly force," as well as its "accountability mechanisms" within the department itself.
"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," said Lynch, who was joined at a news conference by Zachary Fardon, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, and Vanita Gupta, the head of Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
"This mistrust from members of the community makes it more difficult to gain help with investigations, to encourage victims and witnesses of crimes to speak up, and to fulfill the most basic responsibilities of public safety officials," she said. "And when suspicion and hostility is allowed to fester, it can erupt into unrest."
The civil rights probe follows others recently in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, and comes as the police department and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are under intense scrutiny over their handling of the October 2014 death of the 17-year-old McDonald.
Numerous state and community leaders have been clamoring for an investigation since the city was rocked by the McDonald shooting, which many say is emblematic of a much larger problem within the city.
Prosecutors have charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder in the 2014 shooting and Mayor Emanuel forced Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to resign.
The video shows McDonald veering away from officers on a four-lane street when Van Dyke, seconds after exiting his squad car, opens fire from close range. The officer continues shooting after McDonald crumples to the ground and is barely moving. The video does not include sound, which authorities have not explained.
It was recently discovered the official police accounts of what happened to McDonald differed greatly from what the video presented.
The Chicago City Council signed off on a $5 million settlement with McDonald's family even before the family filed a lawsuit, and city officials fought in court for months to keep the video from being released publicly. The city's early efforts to suppress its release coincided with Emanuel's re-election campaign, when the mayor was seeking African-American votes in a tight race.
Last week, the Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan wrote a letter to the U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch calling for a federal probe of the Chicago Police Department.
CBS Chicago reports Emanuel initially referred to Madigan's request as "misguided," but one day later appeared to change course, saying that he is open to a federal probe of the department.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he was pleased with the decision to investigate Chicago. The longtime civil rights leader said he hoped that the investigation would focus not only on the police department, but on Emanuel's office and the Cook County State's Attorney's office, which he and others have criticized for taking so long to bring charges against Van Dyke.
"All three of them - the police, City Hall and the prosecutor's office - are suspect," Jackson said. "We cannot trust them."
A spokesman for the Chicago police department referred a request for comment about the reported investigation to Adam Collins, a spokesman for the mayor's office.
"We welcome the engagement of the Department of Justice as we work to restore trust in our police department and improve our system of police accountability," Collins said.
The Justice Department in the last six years has opened more than 20 investigations of police departments.
If the Justice Department finds systemic civil rights violations, the investigations typically result in court-enforceable agreements between the federal government and the local community that serve as blueprints for change and are overseen by an independent monitor. The federal government has the option of suing a police department that is unwilling to make changes.
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, criticized for not filing charges earlier in the McDonald case, says she will speak Monday morning about the killing of another young black man by city police. Authorities say Ronald Johnson, 25, pointed a gun at police before an officer shot and killed him on Oct. 12, 2014. His mother, Dorothy Holmes, said that wasn't the case and that her son was running away from police. Emanuel has said the city would release video this week of Johnson's shooting.
Emanuel has scheduled a Monday afternoon news conference on police accountability with interim Chicago Police Superintendent John Escalante and the new head of the Independent Police Review Authority, a city agency that investigates police cases. The mayor's office announced late Sunday that the former head of that agency, Scott Ando, had resigned effective immediately.
Emanuel's office said in a statement that while Ando had reduced the agency's backlog of cases, "... it has become clear that new leadership is required as we rededicate ourselves to dramatically improving our system of police accountability." Ando will be replaced by Sharon Fairley, general counsel and first deputy of the city's Office of the Inspector General and a former assistant U.S. attorney.
Emanuel acknowledged "the checkered history of misconduct in the Chicago Police Department" in an opinion column published in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune. "Chicago is facing a defining moment on the issues of crime and policing and the even larger issues of truth and justice," Emanuel wrote. "To meet this moment, we need to conduct a painful but honest reckoning of what went wrong - not just in one instance, but over decades."
The University of Chicago said last month that an analysis by its civil rights and police accountability clinic found of 56,000 complaints against Chicago police - but only a fraction led to disciplinary action. Among the most notorious cases, dozens of men, mostly African-American, said they were subjected to torture from a Chicago police squad headed by former commander Jon Burge during the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. Burge was convicted of lying about the torture and served 4.5 years in prison.
Of 409 shootings involving Chicago police since September 2007, only two have led to allegations against an officer being found credible, the Chicago Tribune reported, citing data from the Independent Police Review Authority.