Jamie Kalven on the release of the Department of Justice report / by Maira Khwaja

On Friday, the Department of Justice released the report on its 13-month investigation of the Chicago Police Department. It found that the CPD engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Constitution. It attributed this to "systemic deficiencies in training and accountability." Released on the eve of Donald Trump's ascension to the White House, much of the commentary since has focused on the dim prospects for vigorous federal oversight of the city's police department by a DOJ under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Reading the report over the weekend, I found that this unsettling context enhances the power, eloquence and urgency of the document. The report now transcends its legal function as the basis for negotiating a consent decree with the city. Formally known as a "findings letter," it is best seen, under present circumstances, as just that: a letter to Chicagoans reporting on the results of a thorough biopsy of their police department. I urge you to read it in that light.

It is a remarkable document that combines analytic clarity with narrative texture to describe some of the deep-seated institutional pathologies that have contributed to the current crisis of the civil order in our city. As an investigative journalist who has written extensively about police abuse and impunity, I am deeply impressed by the reach of the investigation and the force of the presentation. I will return to it often.

The federal government has now definitively acknowledged what those living in the black and brown neighborhoods most affected by abusive policing have known for generations. And it has described in detail the mechanisms by which that knowledge, expressed in the form of citizen complaints of police abuse, has been disregarded and, in effect, made to disappear. 

At the same time, the report addresses the concerns of police officers. It speaks to the failure of the CPD to invest in its personnel by providing adequate training and necessary resources. It also addresses a major concern of the rank and file: the way clout rather than merit governs promotions. Reforms will only succeed, the authors of the report communicate via their tone and distribution of emphasis, if they meet the needs of demoralized police officers as well as aggrieved citizens.

As we absorb the report, it is important to be clear about critical issues that lie outside its scope. It was never intended to be a comprehensive blueprint for reform. From the start, the scope of the DOJ investigation was limited. Among the areas that are not addressed—or only touched on—are false arrest; police in schools; the operation of the code of silence understood not simply as a peer-to-peer phenomenon but as coercion by supervisory personnel; and the relationship of the CPD to the mayor, the city law office, and the states attorney.

Beyond those issues, Black Lives Matter activists demand that we consider the alternative uses that could be made of the massive resources allocated to the police, inviting us to enlarge our understanding of the necessary conditions for public safety in our communities.

If the DOJ report is to be a living document going forward, we need to study it, build on it and critically engage with it. Whether or not the process of negotiating a consent decree gets traction, the report has altered the political and legal landscape in Chicago. It will be a powerful tool in the hands of the civil rights bar, the Chicago inspector general and other change agents. 

But it is incumbent on us as citizens to see that its recommendations are implemented. If we have learned anything over the last 13 months since the Laquan McDonald implosion, it is that the city's political leadership acts when citizens insist that they do. As our outgoing president has often reminded us, most recently in his farewell address last week, the powers and responsibilities of citizenship are not self-executing. 

It's up to us.

“DOJ report a powerful tool—in the right hands” appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business, January 17, 2017