In wake of dashcam video, Emanuel must navigate political minefield

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Now that Chicago — and the world — have seen the video of a white police officer firing 16 shots into the body of black teenager Laquan McDonald, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is confronting a series of political dilemmas that make his decision to close a record 50 public schools look like child’s play.

Emanuel must decide whether to retain or fire Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, as the City Council’s Black Caucus and some activists have demanded in their outrage over what they call the “execution video.”

The mayor must determine whether to try to alter a police contract that allowed Police Officer Jason Van Dyke to be stripped of his police powers, but to remain on the city payroll for 13 months before being placed on “no-pay status” — and even that occurred only after he was charged with first-degree murder.

Emanuel must confront the need for a better early warning system to isolate the relatively small number of police officers responsible for an inordinate number of “complaints registered” — and lean on his newly revamped Police Board to get tougher on wayward cops.

There’s also the issue of preventing the McDonald video from exacerbating the deep distrust of police in the black community and undermining the city’s effort to recruit more African-American officers so essential to building bridges to that community.


The first order of business is McCarthy, the colorful and brash New Yorker surpassed in longevity only by former Police Supt. Terry Hillard.

The Black Caucus wants him gone. They demanded it last month after another weekend bloodbath and after McCarthy infuriated African-American aldermen by replacing retiring First Deputy Supt. Al Wysinger, who is black, with John Escalante, who is Hispanic. They reiterated it after the video was hastily released.

“There is no excuse for this type of behavior. This has gone on and on and on and on and enough is enough,” said Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), who plans to push for a “no-confidence” vote on McCarthy at the Dec. 9 City Council meeting.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the Black Caucus, added: “We want McCarthy gone. His time has come. He’s run his course. We need to have new leadership at the top.”

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley forced the resignation of Police Supt. Phil Cline after the furor over another videotape played around the world. It showed burly off-duty Chicago Police Officer Anthony Abbate pummeling a diminutive female bartender.

Cline had been contemplating retirement, but he wanted to leave on his own terms. He walked the plank for mishandling the Abbate incident and for leaving six off-duty officers accused of beating four businessmen at the Jefferson Tap and Grille on the job for months.

The Chicago City Council Black Caucus held a press conference Wednesday to call for government accountability in the Laquan McDonald case and peace in the streets in the wake of the release of the dashcam video. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

The Chicago City Council Black Caucus held a press conference Wednesday to call for government accountability in the Laquan McDonald case and peace in the streets in the wake of the release of the dashcam video. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Emanuel is far more loyal and far less likely to throw McCarthy under the bus. City Hall sources expect the mayor to stand by his man until such time as McCarthy, who suffered a serious heart attack more than a year ago, decides for himself that he’s had enough.

The worldwide threat of terrorism in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris is at least part of the reason.

On Sept. 11, 2001, McCarthy was operations chief for the New York Police department. He lost 13 friends on that day, two of them among his closest buddies. He spent six months digging at Ground Zero but didn’t find a single person alive.

“We are an international city. We have to regard ourselves as a potential target for terrorists. We need an experienced hand to keep the city safe,” said a mayoral confidant, who asked to remain anonymous.

“People say, ‘Get rid of him.’ But if you get rid of him, then what? I don’t know that there’s an obvious choice locally or at the national level who has the bundle of skills necessary to balance all of the competing interests in this complicated department and city. This is not Mayberry,” the mayoral confidant said.

Another Emanuel ally, who also asked to remain anonymous, said politics alone dictates that the mayor allow McCarthy to leave on his own terms.

“If you bend to the will of the crowd and let them dictate the terms of engagement on one of your most important appointments, how do you ever reclaim that ground?” the mayoral ally said. “This is a smart, savvy mayor. He gets the politics of this. He is never going to allow himself to be put in a situation where he looks weak.”

Demands to immediately remove police officers like Jason Van Dyke from the city payroll are equally problematic.

“Some of those things with the union contract are the things people don’t understand. We don’t have at-will employees and we can’t just fire them the way that people expect,” McCarthy told reporters on the night the dashcam video was released.

The Independent Police Review Authority refers all police-involved shootings to the state’s attorney’s office and never makes its disciplinary recommendation to the superintendent until after the state’s attorney’s office either issues an indictment or decides not file charges. Only then would the superintendent make his recommendation to the Police Board.

“Do you really want to create a situation where a person is effectively fired by being taken off the payroll before the investigation is completed? That would set a horrible precedent. That is wrong-headed,” an Emanuel adviser said.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) has talked about finding ways to protect “our young people” by amending the police contract to include “tougher policies and sanctions against police officers who do egregious or illegal acts.”

That change is far more likely to happen, even though it might have to wait until June 30, 2017, when the current five-year contract expires.

Eighteen citizen complaints have been filed against Van Dyke in his 14-year career, but he was never disciplined, according to a University of Chicago database.

Eight complaints alleged excessive force. Two involved the use of a firearm in addition to the McDonald shooting. One prompted a federal jury to award $350,000 to a man whose shoulders were injured after being roughed up by Van Dyke during a traffic stop for a missing front license plate.

“Chicago needs a more effective system to identify police officers with multiple C.R.’s, founded or unfounded,” said a source familiar with the disciplinary process, using the abbreviation for “complaints registered.”

“There has to be early intervention. It can’t be left to the Independent Police Review Authority or to Internal Affairs,” the source added. “When a police officer has piled up a number of complaints over a short period of time or even over a period of years, somebody has to have a conversation with that officer and craft an individualized intervention program so they know they’re not anonymous and somebody is watching them.”

Quovadis Green speaks at a police accountability press conference outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office on Wednesday. | Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times

Quovadis Green speaks at a police accountability press conference outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office on Wednesday. | Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times

After surviving Chicago’s first mayoral runoff, Emanuel persuaded the City Council to authorize a $5 million settlement to the McDonald family even before a lawsuit had been filed. He kept the incendiary video under wraps, he claims, to avoid jeopardizing the criminal case.

The mayor also revamped the Police Board, which had a history of reversing the superintendent’s recommendations to terminate accused officers. He put it under the leadership of former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, who once ran the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards.

Firings of wayward police officers have been recommended at every meeting since the new Police Board was seated.

Chicago also became the nation’s first major city to dole out reparations — up to $5.5 million — to compensate those allegedly tortured by former Area 2 Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his co-horts.

It was the boldest step the city has taken to remove what Emanuel has called “this stain” on the Chicago Police Department.

Now, the Police Department has another stain that, in some ways, is every bit as undermining to the public trust between citizens and police in the black community so vital to solving crimes.

“Unfortunately, we have some work to do to obtain the trust, as many Police Departments in this country are struggling in the same vein,” McCarthy acknowledged this week, even as he emphasized that increased training, supervision and accountability had reduced police shootings by nearly 70 percent on his watch.

Emanuel added: “Do we have to make changes? Absolutely. It’s always working towards a culture that understands that you’re accountable. It’s an honor to serve the public. And because you serve the public, you’re not above the law. You’ll be held accountable . . . not just like everybody else, but to a higher standard. . . . Is it perfect? Nothing is ever perfect. Do we have the spirit and desire to constantly find ways to improve it and make it transparent so people believe [police] will be held accountable for their actions? That is what exists.”

The timing couldn’t be worse. The Chicago Police Department is trying desperately to persuade more African-Americans to take the upcoming police exam, the first since 2013.

“We have to try to repair the relationship between the community and the police. And based on these incidents, there’s going to be increased distrust. This is going to widen that gap. They’re going to look at the police with a jaundiced eye,” Ald. Sawyer said.

“It might even be a hindrance to recruiting,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to convince African-Americans to join a police force if they think they’re joining a force that’s compromised or, even worse, corrupt.”

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