The U.S. Justice Department held a public forum Monday evening on its pattern and practice investigation into the Chicago Police Department, but attendance was noticeably light.
The event, held at Malcolm X College on the city's West Side, drew approximately 30 attendees and lasted for just over an hour. It was the first of four public forums the Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. Attorney's Office are hosting about the civil rights probe into the CPD.
"I was just awed that there were so many empty seats here," Isaac Lewis, publisher of the North Lawndale Community News, told Progress Illinois after the event ended early. "The only representatives from the community here on the West Side, which Malcolm X is close to, is the West Side branch of the NAACP."
During public participation, Lewis asked DOJ officials to consider holding another public forum on Chicago's West Side.
"I mean, it was about 5 percent capacity," he said of Monday's forum.
DOJ officials didn't commit to holding another West Side forum, but they did encourage attendees to spread the word about the next three public meetings in an effort to garner broader participation.
As part of its investigation, DOJ representatives said they have already heard from about 400 community members about their experiences with the CPD through an email hotline and letters. The investigative team has also attended various community events and met with over 80 neighborhood organizations, advocates and faith leaders across Chicago, officials said.
Additionally, federal investigators have thus far participated in ride-alongs with 60 officers spanning all Chicago police districts, met several times with the police unions and conducted interviews with 150 police department members. Thirty-five investigators at the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) and the CPD's internal affairs bureau have been interviewed, and DOJ officials are reviewing thousands of police documents and other materials.
The Justice Department launched its civil rights investigation into CPD's practices back in December in the wake of the police shooting death Laquan McDonald and the subsequent handling of the case.
Officials within the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney's Office are part of the investigative team looking into whether a pattern or practice of civil rights violations is occurring within the CPD. Specifically, the investigation is focused on three key areas -- use of force, systems of accountability, and racial, ethnic or other disparities in the police's treatment of and interactions with residents. The probe covers the CPD as well as IPRA, which investigates police shootings and misconduct.
"If we do find that there is a pattern or practice of legal violations, of people's rights being violated, then we will seek to negotiate an agreement with the city of Chicago," explained Christy Lopez, deputy chief of the special litigation section in the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division.
DOJ officials said the department's investigation findings are expected to be released before 2017.
Three representatives from the West Side branch of the NAACP were among the forum attendees who spoke during public comment. They called for the removal of provisions within the Fraternal Order of Police contract that allow for "blatant misuses of police power."
"They have things that allow the records to be destroyed," Remel Terry, second vice president of the NAACP's Chicago West Side branch, told the federal officials. "They have things that allow them to see all the evidence against them before they can give their confession or their statement on an issue. So these are things that sort of put them above the law that an average citizen doesn't get when they're being interrogated or asked about something they've been involved in."
If federal investigators find problems with the FOP contract, they could be addressed with voluntary changes or through a court order, DOJ officials explained.
Terry also said she hopes community groups will have a seat at the table when a new agency is developed to replace IPRA.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports abolishing IPRA and replacing it with some type of civilian agency, a recommendation made by the mayor's Police Accountability Task Force.
Emanuel had planned to introduce the IPRA overhaul at Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting. But, following concerns from aldermen about the measure, the city council will now hold two subject matter hearings, one on July 6 and another on July 7, to gather public input on the issue.
"In order for us to have trust in whatever this new entity will be, we have to have input," Terry said after the forum.
Lopez said DOJ is not currently in the "position to opine on what IPRA should look like or whether IPRA should continue to be."
"We're not there yet," she said. "We understand that the city is moving on this. We don't want to stand in the way of changes, but we think that it's important for all of you to have a voice in that, to weigh in on that ... We think it's important for everybody to be very thoughtful before additional reforms are made, because we don't want to be in a situation where you are just sort of rebranding things and not making any substantive changes."
Lopez stressed that the DOJ cannot solve Chicago's policing issues "single-handedly."
"It's gonna take the work of police officers. It's gonna take the work of police and city leaders. It's gonna take the work of all of you," she said. "But we do think, based on our experience in other places, that our involvement here, our investigation, the remedies we can provide are a unique and powerful tool that can be a really big part of those collective efforts to finally fully address the problems with policing in Chicago."
The next public forum on the Justice Department's CPD investigation is scheduled for Wednesday evening. The meeting will be held at Kennedy-King College, 710 W. 65th St., from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Details on the upcoming public forums can be found here.