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Justice Department Opens Probe Into Chicago Police Department

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We put questions now to a woman whose department is questioning the Chicago police. Federal authorities are examining the city's police after a video showed an officer shooting a suspect 16 times. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel said of this investigation, quote "we welcome it; we need it." Vanita Gupta leads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and she's on the phone. Good morning.

VANITA GUPTA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are you looking for?

GUPTA: So our investigation's going to focus on the Chicago Police Department's use of force, including deadly force, and racial, ethnic and other disparities in its use of force, as well as its broader systems of accountability. And it's a pretty wide-ranging investigation that is obviously very important, I think, both for the city of Chicago as well as for the country.

INSKEEP: So you're asking, do the police use force more often on African-Americans, for example, and are they holding people accountable when they do use too much force? That's your question.

GUPTA: That's right. We'll be looking at both of those areas.

INSKEEP: Now, are you looking at specific cases and potentially looking to charge someone?

GUPTA: So our civil pattern-or-practice investigations don't assess individual cases for potential criminal violations. We have another part of the Civil Rights Division working with our U.S. Attorney's office that does that. We are instead, right now, going to be focusing on, for instance, patterns that are created by systems or lack of systems and practices. We really are looking for trends that demonstrate constitutional violations of people's civil rights. And that is a - you know, important goal for our pattern-or-practice investigations that's pretty distinct from our criminal investigations.

INSKEEP: Well, help us out here because you've already found some of the answers, or what you believe to be the answers, in places like Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo. What are some of the kinds of patterns that you've been finding as you look at police departments?

GUPTA: Well, I mean, so each of our investigations is quite different. You know, in Ferguson we were looking at a range of policing practices. We ended up looking also at the role of the municipal courts in generating revenue from African-American residents. In Cleveland, we were very focused on use of force, excessive use of force, and accountability systems. And so in every jurisdiction, what we are looking to do is to speak to community residents, to police officers, to the city. We're going to be examining hundreds of thousands of pages of use-of-force reports and the like, looking at policies, training. And really, at the end of the day, seeking to find out whether we are protecting - whether the Chicago Police Department is protecting people's civil rights while also, of course, giving its officers the tools that they need - including training, policy guidance and equipment - to be more effective and to ensure constitutional policing.

INSKEEP: Will you also be investigating the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, which is what two Chicago aldermen have been saying you should be doing?

GUPTA: This investigation is focused specifically on the Chicago Police Department. And we will go where the facts and law lead us. But we are focused on use of force and accountability. Those are fairly broad topics, of course, but it is focused on the Chicago Police Department.

INSKEEP: Well, just to be clear here, the mayor oversees the police - fired the police commissioner the other day, as a matter fact, the police supervisor. Could the investigation go that high if that's where the facts were to lead you, as you said?

GUPTA: Our investigations are going to focus on the policies and practices of the police department. Any personnel decisions really are up to the city. We'll be working closely with the city, as well as, as I said, with the community and law enforcement in the city of Chicago. But ultimately, what we are looking at is the policies and practices of the Chicago Police Department. And anything else in terms of personnel decisions really resides with the city.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about the specific case that triggered this investigation. And I know you are going to look into it, and you can't give conclusive answers, but one fact troubles a lot of people. There was this video. The video was kept private, away from the public, for a year. In general terms, is holding back evidence like that ever either wise or appropriate?

GUPTA: Well, we are going to be looking at the responses to critical incidents of the Chicago Police Department. I can't speak to the specifics of this particular investigation since the United States Attorney's Office is currently investigating it. But as part of our investigation into accountability systems, we will be looking at what the response is, whether it's appropriate to incidents like that of Laquan McDonald and others, and really assessing whether the Chicago Police Department is engaging with fair and consistent accountability systems that meet the kind of accountability that the city of Chicago - the residents of Chicago - really deserve.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, Vanita Gupta, thank you very much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She leads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which is beginning a broad investigation of the policies and practices of the use of force of the Chicago Police Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.