Errol Louis: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces crisis on street violence and police brutality
Video of teen Laquan McDonald's shooting by a Chicago officer wasn't released for more than a year
Inaccurate police account, payment to the victim's family had suspicious political timing to it, he says
You may be having a bad day, but it can’t be worse than Rahm Emanuel’s. The Chicago mayor finds himself at the center of a high-profile political crisis that threatens to paralyze his administration.
At issue are the twin dilemmas of street violence and police brutality, which are common in many cities but have reached crisis levels in the Windy City. Shootings and murders have soared in recent years, and drug-dealing gangsters recently killed an innocent 9-year-old child named Tyshawn Lee in cold blood to send a message to a rival group, an act of savagery that (now former) police Superintendent Garry McCarthy called “probably the most abhorrent, cowardly, unfathomable crime that I’ve witnessed in 35 years of policing.”
McCarthy announced an all-out war: “That gang just signed its own death warrant,” he said at a news conference on the day after Thanksgiving. “We’re going to go in and destroy that gang and, by the way, the rival gang, too.”
That sounded like good news for residents who have been terrorized by dope dealers and gangbangers. Unfortunately, however, cracking down on depraved criminals is not the biggest police story in Chicago.
On the same day McCarthy declared war on the gangs, thousands of protesters took to the streets – many demanding McCarthy’s removal – following the release of a chilling video showing a police officer pumping 16 bullets into a teenager named Laquan McDonald, who was walking away from officers.
And on Tuesday, this week, Emanuel dismissed McCarthy from his job.
Later that day, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said she sent a letter to the U.S. attorney general asking the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to open an investigation into the Chicago Police Department.
The officer in the Laquan McDonald shooting, Jason Van Dyke, has been arrested and charged with murder, but release of the video set off demonstrations that disrupted shopping all along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Black Friday, the critical shopping day after Thanksgiving.
I watched as protesters shut down the Apple Store, Niketown and the ritzy Water Tower Place shopping mall, causing what must have been millions of dollars in losses for those and other businesses. The following afternoon, protests continued: A group of demonstrators carried a coffin to City Hall, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s weekly community rally included calls for a federal investigation of the Emanuel administration.
The cries of the protesters won’t be fading anytime soon. The actions of the police, the Emanuel administration and the local prosecutor, state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, all point to a scandalous cover-up that cries out for an outside investigation.
The key thing to remember is that the killing of McDonald took place in October 2014, and the video was in the hands of prosecutors around the same time. The city’s official account back then was that McDonald “lunged” at officers and was struck by a single bullet.
None of that was true. Following tips from whistleblowers inside law enforcement, journalists discovered that the autopsy of McDonald revealed 16 shots, not one, with nine of the bullets striking the teenager’s back. According to news reports, the district manager for a nearby Burger King said that police took the restaurant’s security camera video, from which 86 minutes of footage that might have shown events before the shooting then mysteriously vanished. Chicago police have denied allegations that police deleted the footage.
Another suspicious chapter in the tale came when the Chicago City Council approved a $5 million payment to McDonald’s family within weeks of the killing – long before any investigation had been completed, and before the family had even filed a wrongful death lawsuit.
More problems. The shooter in the case, Van Dyke, had 17 civilian complaints in his record, including three for allegedly using excessive force; in one case, the city settled a complaint for $500,000.
And all this scrambling by officials – the inaccurate police account, the speedy payment of money to the victim’s family – had a suspiciously political timing to it. McDonald’s killing occurred four months before Emanuel faced a tough re-election in February: As it turned out, Emanuel failed to win a majority and only squeaked by after a runoff election, the first in Chicago history.
The video showing McDonald’s killing was only released – more than a year after the fact – because a judge ordered it after months of legal battling by the Emanuel administration and the state’s attorney to keep the footage under wraps. And only hours before the video came out was Van Dyke arrested and charged with murder.
The fallout from the case has just begun. Alvarez, the state’s attorney, who is up for re-election this year, is facing a challenge from Kim Foxx, a black attorney supported by Jackson and other civil rights leaders.
And Emanuel will continue to hear calls for the firing of his police chief and a federal investigation of what the mayor knew, when he knew it and why the administration approved the multimillion-dollar payment to McDonald’s family if, as the mayor claims, he’d never seen the video that the city fought so hard to keep hidden.
“State Street’s next,” Jackson told followers after leading the march that shut down businesses on Michigan Avenue – a reference to another major commercial thoroughfare in Chicago. That could happen as soon as Tuesday, the 60th anniversary of the day civil rights heroine Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama.
All of which amounts to a crisis that is turning out to be more about politics than policing.