After police shootings, Chicago faces crisis of trust

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Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: State's Attorney Anita Alvarez faces crisis in trust over allegation of coverup in police shootings
  • He says in wake of McDonald, Johnson cases, she has lost key support ahead of her March Democratic primary

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)"I'm not covering anything up. I have shown everyone in this room what we have done," Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez told a skeptical Chicago press corps as she explained why there will be no indictment of an officer who shot and killed a young man named Ronald Johnson last year.

It's never a good sign when a politician feels the need to deny covering up misconduct. But that is where things stand in Chicago, as an outraged public demands answers, wholesale, in the wake of multiple law enforcement scandals and a violent crime rate that has spiked out of control.
Video shows Ronald Johnson Chicago police shooting
Video shows Ronald Johnson Chicago police shooting

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Alvarez has a severe credibility problem. She is the same prosecutor who spent more than 400 days investigating the tragic death of a teenager named Laquan McDonald who was, it turned out, shot 16 times by a police officer, including in the back, many of the shots hitting him while he lay prone on the ground.
    For more than a year, Alvarez sat on evidence of misconduct in the form of a video capturing the gruesome killing -- a video sharply at odds with the version of the killing claimed by multiple cops on the scene. But Alvarez did nothing until the day the video was released to the public; only then did she charge the cop, Jason van Dyke, with murder.
    Her explanation? The joint criminal investigation with the FBI into these "highly complex matters" with "unique legal issues" took a long time.
    The killing of Johnson was also partly captured on video, and is a less clear-cut case than the gunning down of McDonald. According to Alvarez -- who spent 75 minutes showing the dashcam video to reporters and explaining every stage of the incident, Johnson was carrying a gun and fleeing from police when he was shot by an undercover officer.
    In normal times, Alvarez might have come across as a thorough and impartial prosecutor. But her problem -- which is shared by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel -- is that the public is rightly suspicious of delays and double-talk from politicians when it comes to allegations of police conduct.
    In demonstrations that shut down much of the city's "Magnificent Mile" upscale shopping district on the day after Thanksgiving, protesting Chicagoans demanded the resignations of Alvarez, Emanuel and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
    Within days, Emanuel had fired McCarthy. Soon after, an Emanuel appointee named Scott Ando, the chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority -- a body that investigates police shootings -- abruptly resigned.
    In a tough editorial, the Chicago Tribune demanded a thorough investigation of the McDonald case. "This can't be filed away as the actions of a single rogue cop. It can't be chalked up as yet another example of dysfunctional police disciplinary process. This looks like an attempted cover-up," the paper thundered. "Who failed Chicago and how? That question demands an answer, not a scapegoat. It demands an investigation independent of the political stakeholders in the Police Department, the state's attorney's office or City Hall."
    That is just what the federal Justice Department has promised: U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has launched a probe of the Chicago Police Department, investigating allegations of excessive force, racial bias and other problems.
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    Alvarez, a two-term elected official, has vowed to ignore protestors' calls for her resignation: "There's no way that I would ever even consider resigning," she said recently.
    But that may not be her call. Alvarez faces two challengers in the Democratic primary scheduled for March 15. One of them, Kim Foxx, is an African-American attorney who has the backing of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders.
    Alvarez, meanwhile has lost the support of key players in her Latino political base, including Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, who made a strong run for Chicago mayor this year, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the well-known Puerto Rican congressman.
    "You know, I have a tough job," Alvarez told reporters recently. "I think I have the hardest job in this county... and you know no matter what decision I make, someone is going to be unhappy."
    The question is whether voters are unhappy enough to make a change next March.