Yesterday afternoon, the Chicago Police Department issued a statement about an “irate” and “yelling” 69-year-old passenger who refused to disembark from an oversold United Airlines flight. The statement explained that Chicago Department of Aviation officers arrived on the scene when the man “fell” and “his head subsequently struck an armrest causing injuries to his face.” In an internal email, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz added that he deeply regretted what had happened. But United’s onboard employees “were left with no choice” but to call for help in removing the “disruptive and belligerent” passenger who “repeatedly declined to leave” and “continued to resist.”
As someone who has seen some of the dozens of cellphone videos of officers dragging the bloodied man off the flight, the statements above ring hollow. But as someone who has also seen some of the dozens of identical statements from police departments across the country—of officers who “tap-tapped” a noncompliant 12-year-old in the chest; of a belligerent 50-year-old shot after he “struggled” for an officer’s Taser; of a 25-year-old killed in a police van after trying to run away “unprovoked”—they also ring true to form.
We don’t know all that happened between the Chicago Police Department and the man on the United flight. But with the other examples—of the Cleveland Police Department and Tamir Rice, the North Charleston Police Department and Walter Scott, the Baltimore Police Department and Freddie Gray—the main source of unbiased information over the past few years has been the Department of Justice’s civil rights division.
The division’s investigations have not only shed light on what happened in those fatal cases. They’ve also identified basic problems throughout entire police departments, including Chicago’s, that if addressed could have avoided the violence in the first place. In the same way that United could have sidestepped its recent haul of bad publicity by, I don’t know, deciding whether its flights were overbooked before boarding the final four passengers, the division has reached consent decrees with police departments to introduce similarly intuitive reforms that are much more badly needed.
All of this is why it’s so troubling that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently ordered an internal review of these consent decrees and that he (unsuccessfully) attempted to pull out of a decree with Baltimore. Except with the DOJ investigations, the stakes are much higher than leggings or flight vouchers. To take one of many examples, the DOJ’s report on the Newark Police Department found that approximately 93 percent of police stops in the city were unconstitutional—justified by statements like “Individual Was Stopped on Bicycle No Proper ID.” The DOJ noted that if Newark put an end to these sorts of unjustified stops, it might also prevent the excessive force that followed—which is exactly the sort of progress that has been made in places like Seattle.
When the DOJ doesn’t ask follow-up questions, the public is often left with self-serving statements like Chicago and United’s account of an irate man who threw his head into an armrest. Thankfully, that passenger appears to be back at home, able to treat his patients. But the videos of his encounter reveal not only what happened to him, but also why the civil rights division’s oversight remains so necessary for the countless people without his spotlight.