A look at how federal civil-rights investigations work

CHICAGO (AP) - The Justice Department has launched an investigation into racial disparities and the use of force by Chicago police, opening a city plagued for years by accusations of police brutality to broad federal scrutiny for the first time.

Monday's announcement comes nearly two weeks after the release of a video showing white Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. Prosecutors have charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder.

Here's a look at how the federal investigation will work:

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SCOPE

Criminal investigations typically have a narrow focus, while federal civil-rights investigations scrutinize the entire structure and operation of an agency and its "patterns and practices."

Among the general questions the investigation will seek to answer: Are abuses widespread or are they isolated to a few rogue officers? Is there an entrenched culture or something systemic in the department that leads to civil-rights violations?

Chicago's police force is one of the nation's largest, with more than 12,000 officers.

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HISTORY

Authorization for the Justice Department to conduct such investigations came under a 1994 civil-rights law passed after a black motorist, Rodney King, was videotaped being beaten by police in Los Angeles. A jury's acquittal of the officers set off riots in 1992, leaving dozens dead and hundreds injured. Several of the officers were later convicted on federal civil-rights charges.

The Justice Department has opened 23 investigations of police departments since the start of the Obama administration. Other departments that have gone under the microscope include those in Cleveland; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Portland, Oregon; Newark, New Jersey; Seattle, New Orleans and Ferguson, Missouri, where the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown prompted months of protests.

The Justice Department's scathing report on Ferguson, Missouri, found sweeping patterns of racial bias within the police force. The report, issued in March, found that officers routinely discriminated against blacks by using excessive force, issuing petty citations and making baseless traffic stops." And in Albuquerque, where the government focused on 23 fatal shootings by police, a report released in 2014 said investigators found a troubling pattern of excessive force.

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CHICAGO'S FOCUS

The Justice Department spelled out several specific lines of inquiry, including whether there are racial, ethnic and other disparities in the use of force by police. Investigators also will scrutinize systems set up to ensure officers are held accountable and disciplined, as well as police training.

Investigators will interview Chicago residents and defense attorneys, among others, and go through police records and even ride along with officers on neighborhood patrols.

Taking the lead in the investigation will be staff from the Justice's Department's civil-rights division, aided by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago. Independent experts could also be brought in, according to the Department of Justice website.

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THE AIM

The objective isn't only to bring about reform but also to force wholescale change that sticks. So, if there's a finding that civil-rights abuses by Chicago police are systemic, prosecutors would likely ask a federal judge to order the city and the department to make specific recommendations.

One element would almost certainly include court oversight, as well as independent monitors who would report back to the judge on whether police are complying with the orders.

The majority of the investigations end with court-enforceable agreements between the federal government and the community that serve as blueprints for change. In a handful of other cases, including in Austin, Texas, the federal government has closed its investigations without finding any constitutional violations.

Sometimes investigations result in back-and-forth negotiations between local police departments and the Justice Department. In New Orleans, for instance, the city government initially raised concerns in court about the cost of carrying out the reforms dictated by the federal government.

The federal government has the option of suing a police department that is unwilling to make changes.

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