The No. 2 official in the Chicago Police Department announced his retirement Tuesday to become police chief at Northeastern Illinois University as the department braces for more fallout from the Laquan McDonald scandal.
First Deputy Supt. John Escalante was chief of detectives in 2014 when a department investigation found Officer Jason Van Dyke was justified in fatally shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times.
Then on Nov. 24, Van Dyke was charged with murder following a separate investigation by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the FBI.
Video from a dashboard camera in one of the police cars on the scene contradicted the accounts of Van Dyke and other officers, showing McDonald was walking away from Van Dyke and not approaching him as he held a knife.
On Monday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported police Supt. Eddie Johnson is considering recommendations by the city’s inspector general to fire or discipline at least 10 officers for either covering up or bungling the investigation of the McDonald shooting.
Deputy Chief David McNaughton has retired ahead of the public release of the inspector general’s recommendations. He had signed off on Van Dyke’s use of force being proper, writing that McDonald had “continued to approach” Van Dyke, even though the video showed the opposite.
Escalante does not come under criticism in the inspector general’s report, according to a police source.
Escalante, who served as interim superintendent for about four months after former Supt. Garry McCarthy’s ouster in December 2015, recently marked 30 years with the department. His last city patrol will be over Labor Day weekend before starting at the Northwest Side university on Sept. 7.
“As police superintendent and a resident of Chicago, I have bittersweet emotions on John’s decision to accept this incredible opportunity as our police department will lose a very dedicated and intelligent crime fighter who cares deeply about the people and safety of our city,” Johnson said in a statement.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel was tight-lipped Tuesday about the inspector general report and its connection to Escalante’s departure. Emanuel met with Inspector General Joe Ferguson last month, but it’s unclear whether they discussed the McDonald case.
“I won’t really have much to say about the particular issue until Eddie [Johnson] makes his decision. He’ll make that decision, and I’ll back that decision up,” Emanuel said after announcing construction of a new library on the South Side.
“It’s very important to bring a level of transparency to the police department because I think that transparency builds trust and confidence in not only the oversight but also the culture and values of the police department.”
“If you look at the history of Chicago, I think we have a new chapter in that effort,” the mayor said.
On Tuesday, Ald. Danny Solis (25th), Emanuel’s staunchest City Council supporter in the Hispanic community, demanded that another Hispanic replace Escalante.
“City departments, as much as possible, should reflect what the composition of the city is with qualified people,” Solis said, citing a shortage of Hispanics in leadership positions in city government.
“They should find the best qualified Hispanic and try to get that representation within the police force.”
As for Escalante, Solis said, “I’m sad that he’s leaving. All indications that I had about him was that he was a good police officer. He had the respect of the rank-and-file. That has some value. As far as the why’s, I don’t have any comment on that until I get more information.
Escalante held down the fort as interim superintendent after the firing of Supt. Garry McCarthy and he applied for the permanent job, only to be bypassed by the Police Board.
Emanuel ended up rejecting all three finalists and doing an end-run around the Police Board by choosing Johnson, who did not even apply for the job.
At a City Hall news conference on Dec. 7, Escalante addressed reporters’ questions about whether officers tailored their reports to match the story told by Van Dyke.
Escalante, chief of detectives at the time those reports were approved, was asked why they were approved when the video clearly contradicts the officers’ accounts.
“There is no formal review process that goes up the chain of command for a police-involved shooting. So we, as of today, instituted what is going to be a more formalized process that will review each police shooting that will actually come up the chain,” Escalante said then.
“Without trying to pass the buck, there actually was never anything for me to sign off on. But we’re changing that so that there will be as we move forward.”
Emanuel was reminded on that day that most officers charged with violating Rule 14 — by filing false reports or lying under oath during the course of an investigation — are neither fired nor suspended by the Police Board. In other cities, the rule is, “If you lie, you die.”
“You’ve addressed my very concern, which is one of the reasons I’ve asked this [police accountability] task force to look at the fact you have three entities all supposed to be doing something, and it’s not happening,” the mayor said, referring to the Independent Police Review Authority, the Police Board and the police department’s Bureau of Internal Affairs.
“If people are not telling the truth but they believe there’s a permissive culture that enables that rather than hold them accountable, we have a problem because people won’t trust it,” Emanuel had said.
On July 26, Escalante met privately with Emanuel, according to copies of the mayor’s meeting scheduled released to the Chicago Sun-Times in response to a Freedom of Information request. The records do not disclose what was discussed.