The forthcoming U.S. Deparment of Justice pattern-and-practice investigation of the Chicago Police Department represents a milestone in Barack Obama’s presidency. The Windy City’s police department is the largest municipal law enforcement agency to be examined by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. DOJ  since the Rampart Division scandal of the Los Angeles Police Department fifteen years ago.

For years, Chicago residents have leveled allegations against the police department of brutality, torture, corruption and a culture of cover-ups. Former South Side Commander Jon Burge and officers under his commander elicited countless confessions through torture of over a hundred black suspects over three decades. Recently, internal police data released by the Invisible Institute – a nonprofit journalism organization based in Chicago – revealed an ineffective oversight and disciplinary structure for officers accused of misconduct.

Pattern-and-practice investigations were created as part of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act to reform dozens of police departments facing serious questions of officer misconduct and accountability. Police departments in Washington D.C., Seattle, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere have had agency-wide reforms imposed on them by consent decrees stemming from similar investigations, while other cities like Baltimore are currently under the same sort of review that Chicago will face.

The federal probe comes on the heels of a tumultuous two weeks for Chicago, and stems from the fallout of the judge-ordered release of graphic video depicting the fatal shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in October 2014. Within hours, Officer Van Dyke was charged with first degree murder, protesters thronged to Chicago’s streets, and reports that officers investigating the McDonald incident had allegedly deleted video of the incident captured by cameras at a Burger King franchise circulated in the national media.

Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Chicago Police Chief Gary McCarthy, a former NYPD commander who rose to prominence under Bill Bratton. The last police department McCarthy ran, in Newark, New Jersey, is under a federal consent decree resulting from misconduct and racial profiling allegations stemming from McCarthy’s tenure there. Within days, the head of Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority and McCarthy’s Chief of Detectives followed him out the door.

A separate federal investigation into whether Laquan McDonald’s shooting amounted to a criminal act under federal civil rights laws is ongoing.

At a press conference Monday, Attorney General Lynch’s remarks alluded to a desire to avoid more sustained protests, which could be exacerbated by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s decision not to file criminal charges against officers who shot an armed suspect in the back while fleeing last year. Video of that incident was also released Monday.  “When suspicion and hostility is allowed to fester, it can erupt into unrest,” Lynch said, alluding to sustained protests in Ferguson, New York City, Baltimore and elsewhere in the country against police misconduct in the past year.

It is an open question whether the federal probe will expand to allegations about illegal detention and torture at the Bureau of Organized Crime’s facility at Homan Square, the department’s controversial use of military-grade surveillance technology, or its questionable gathering of intelligence on activists. However, Lynch’s comments indicated that the Homan Square allegations are of interest to federal investigators.

It’s uncertain whether a federal investigation of the police department will be enough to address the structural problems in Chicago’s criminal justice system. The State’s Attorneys office has faced intense criticism for waiting more than a year to charge Van Dyke and Emanuel has come under fire for negotiating a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family during the mayoral race earlier this year that barred his family from publicly releasing the video. It took a judge’s decision in an open records lawsuit filed by journalist Brandon Smith to force the disclosure of the McDonald footage.

Ali Winston

Ali Winston is a freelance reporter, covering surveillance, privacy and criminal justice. His writing has won awards from the National Association of Black Journalists, the New York City Community Media Alliance, the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Originally from New York, he is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley.