Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Department of Justice “will begin a far-ranging investigation into the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department, part of the continuing fallout over a video released last month showing the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.” She heard the cries of people and pundits, that Chicago, a perennial cesspool of police misconduct and abuse, couldn’t fix itself. Even Rahm Emanuel supported the move, flipping and flopping in his effort to avoid the shit staining his mayor hat.
The Justice Department has long had concerns about the Chicago department. But the current scrutiny centers on a controversy that began with a two-paragraph statement a year ago from the Chicago Police Department about the death of a young black man who had been shot 16 times by the police.
That’s how we roll. Complaints, from black interrogation sites to hundreds of killings of unarmed citizens with nary a prosecution, had been going on for years. Only when a bad enough story hits the front page does the machinery start to crank.
And then, a weird fog overcomes the demanded reaction. When it comes to governmental overreach, abuse, misconduct, impropriety, the federal government has taken its deserved punches. So if it can’t clean itself up, what sort of delusion overcomes us to believe it’s suddenly got magic powers to clean up some other jurisdiction’s improprieties?
No one wants to raise this hypocrisy, because it would force us to take a hard look at our own resources and come to the only realization possible. When the local cops go bad, we pretend the feds are so pure that they will make it better. Because if we don’t pretend, we’re forced to realize that there is no one, no department, no governmental agency on any level, capable of dealing with the reality on the street.
The Washington Post did a long-form review of the efficacy of federal investigations of local police. It’s not heart warming.
“The goal isn’t that we have a perfect police department when we leave,” said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general of the department’s civil rights division. “The goal is that they actually know what to do when there’s a problem.”
Vanita Gupta runs the DoJ’s civil rights division, which is generally viewed as being an arm apart from the prosecutorial body. Most consider her an honest broker, willing to condemn practices that violate constitutional rights and harm civilians. Gupta is no police apologist. But that doesn’t mean she’s a savior either.
Over the past two decades, the Justice Department has undertaken its deepest interventions at 16 police departments that had patterns of excessive or deadly force, implementing reforms under the watch of independent monitors.
The scenario goes like this: Big story of bad cop conduct. Feds announce they’re going to investigate. By the time they issue a report, the attention of the public has long since moved on, and there’s barely a blurb about the rampant violation of constitutional rights that permeates the management of the police.
A Consent Agreement is reached and a federal monitor named. A bunch of money is spent creating the appearance of reforms, the monitor complains that no one is listening, and indeed, no one is until the next front page story of a dead body in the streets. The newspapers remark about the existence of the consent decree, the pattern and practice of impropriety, and the difficulty of getting the cops to stop doing what they’ve always done. Rinse. Repeat.
But measured by incidents of use of force, one of Justice’s primary metrics, the outcomes are mixed. In five of the 10 police departments for which sufficient data was provided, use of force by officers increased during and after the agreements. In five others, it stayed the same or declined.
None of the departments completed reforms by the targeted dates, the review found. In most, the interventions have dragged years beyond original projections, driving up costs. In 13 of the police departments for which budget data was available, costs are expected to surpass $600 million, expenses largely passed on to local taxpayers.
Turning a huge ship takes a lot of time and effort. Some huge ships can’t be turned at all. Maybe the only real approach is to crash it on the shoals and build another ship to take its place. But since we pay for the ship, and it’s a very expensive ship indeed, few of us want to see that happen.
Instead, palliative measures that comport with the limited powers Gupta’s gang are willing to seize, the limited change the local government is willing to allow, the lies the public tells itself about preventing cops on the street from being angry people with guns who aren’t really willing to suffer a paper cut on behalf of the public, are the best we get.
We applaud the cops when they bring in “experts” to train the police. Chicago PD brought in an expert. That didn’t work out as well as hoped. We like soft solutions like training, because it sounds more positive, more constructive, than nuking the joint. Serious and somber public officials explain to wistful residents that things will get better, if only we can explain to the local cops not to violate their constitutional rights, not to shoot them in the street like dogs for no good reason.
Was that ever the problem? Did Officer Friendly, after sitting through a three hour in-service where a paid provocateur explained that it’s really not constitutional to toss a black kid against a wall because he made eye contact, or put 16 bullets into his back as he walked away, mutter aloud, “ooohhhhh, dangit. My bad. Well, now that you’ve explained it me, that will never happen again. Ima happy to wait until the mutt shows me a glint of steel before I plug him between the eyes next time. Sorry about that.”
In interviews, Justice Department officials defended the interventions and said that in recent years they have significantly improved the reform process. Those changes have led to greater oversight of police departments and to policing that better protects the civil rights of residents, they said.
What else can they say? What else do we want them to say? And besides, it lets us sleep well at night until the next video of a cop executing someone.