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How Jason Van Dyke guilty verdict may affect races for Chicago mayor, aldermen

Video by James Foster

If Rahm Emanuel hadn’t pulled the plug on his own re-election bid, the guilty verdict against Officer Jason Van Dyke might have had a huge impact on the crowded race for mayor of Chicago.

The demonstrators who gathered outside City Hall on Friday might have turned their anger on Emanuel instead of on African-American aldermen, who were harshly criticized for signing off on a $5 million settlement to the family of Laquan McDonald — even without a lawsuit being filed — without asking tough enough questions or seeing the incendiary shooting video.

But now that Emanuel has removed himself from the equation, the question is what, if any, impact will the verdict have on city elections?

Will it hurt mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy, the former Chicago police superintendent whom Emanuel fired, just days after the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, for having become a “distraction?”

Will it help former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, who co-chaired the Mayor’s Task Force on Police Accountability, whose scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department laid the groundwork for the Justice Department to do the same, setting the stage for the now-pending consent decree?

Will Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who entered the mayor’s race after Emanuel’s exit, benefit because she, too, has gone toe-to-toe with McCarthy and championed the cause of police reform?


McCarthy obviously is bracing for a possible backlash. On the day before the guilty verdict, his campaign released a “narrative” to correct what it calls “revisionist history” in the Van Dyke case.

McCarthy bracing for backlash

It argued that McCarthy was held “accountable for the behavior” of Van Dyke but that he did not have the authority to fire him, describing that as a “dysfunctional structure” that still exists.

His narrative further argued that the “withholding of the video” — until after the 2015 mayoral runoff — was conducted “entirely by City Hall” and that McCarthy took the only action he legally could: placing Van Dyke on desk duty.

Chicago mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy speaks at a press conference held outside Chicago Police headquarters in July. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
Chicago mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy, seen here in July, obviously is bracing for a possible backlash from the Jason Van Dyke case. | Colin Boyle / Sun-Times

“It’s not that I’m worried about anything. It’s just setting the record straight. The expectations have been grossly overstated,” McCarthy told the Chicago Sun-Times hours before the guilty verdict. “The fact is the law defined what I could and could not do in that case, and I could do nothing more than what I did. It’s being misstated, I believe, on purpose. We have to clear the air on what the role of the superintendent is in the discipline system because those same conditions exist today.”

But what about the latest court filing that shows Van Dyke’s fellow officers began working to keep him out of trouble almost immediately after he shot McDonald and that detectives and higher-ranking officers continued to try to protect him even months after the department cleared him of wrongdoing?

“I did not get down to that level of detail because it was not my investigation. It was IPRA’s,” McCarthy said, referring to the old Independent Police Review Authority.

McCarthy noted that the meeting of police brass that took place two days after the McDonald shooting was part of a policy he initiated. Before that time, no meetings were held to review police-related shootings on that level.

“I saw it as something very important,” he said. “We looked at it for policy, for tactics and for whether or not there was gonna be community unrest.

“In this case, there were issues which I related to the mayor, and, at the end of the day, that was my sum total involvement: putting Van Dyke on paid desk duty, stripping him.”

Pressed on whether he expects a political backlash from the verdict, McCarthy said, “I don’t know what the blowback would be. It’s all part of that narrative, which we corrected. I know people are gonna try and accuse me of things that I just could not do or didn’t do.”

‘Some justice’ in guilty verdict

Could the verdict help Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has championed criminal justice reform and police accountability? | Sun-Times files
Could the verdict help Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has championed criminal justice reform and police accountability? | Sun-Times files

In a written statement after the verdict, Preckwinkle expressed gratitude that there is “some justice” for McDonald, though “nothing can make up for the senseless loss of young life.

“This is an important indictment — not only of the actions of an individual but of the code of silence within the police department,” she said. “We cannot have safe communities if we do not have the police force accountable to all communities.”

Lightfoot hailed the verdict as a “significant milestone” in Chicago history that defied a national trend in which juries “almost always acquit on-duty police officers” of criminal charges.

“I hope that this decision marks — not just a milestone but a turning point as well,” she said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer: “I won’t say it kills off McCarthy. There’s still a segment of the population that may believe that this verdict is bad.” | Rich Hein / Sun-Times
Ald. Roderick Sawyer: “I won’t say it kills off McCarthy. There’s still a segment of the population that may believe that this verdict is bad.” | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, has pledged his support to Preckwinkle. In Sawyer’s view, the verdict could help Preckwinkle, who has championed criminal justice reform and police accountability.

It will also turn up the heat for an elusive compromise on civilian police review and for changes in the Fraternal Order of Police contract to make it easier to discipline wayward officers, he said.

But Sawyer isn’t prepared to write off McCarthy, a front-runner in early polling, because of his strong name recognition.

“I won’t say it kills off McCarthy,” he said. “There’s still a segment of the population that may believe that this verdict is bad.”

Sawyer was asked about the bold threats of political retaliation made by the protesters who gathered outside City Hall after the verdict. They’re targeting black aldermen, whom they accuse of participating in a “coverup” of the Laquan McDonald shooting video. Some of those aldermen were re-elected in 2015 with help from hefty campaign contributions from an Emanuel-allied super-PAC.

Video by Fran Spielman

‘There was no coverup’

“There was no coverup,” Sawyer said. “We knew there was a horrible situation that occurred. The words that the corporation counsel used was that, in all likelihood, the officer was gonna get indicted and probably go to jail. He was absolutely correct.

“It was prudent for us to settle that case fast because that $5 million settlement could have been a $50 million verdict — or even worse. We have to balance the interests of our citizenry and also be financial stewards. It doesn’t sound like a pleasant job — and it’s not. But it’s the job we’re tasked to do, and we did that. If people think there’s a better way to do that without putting the city into bankruptcy, please let me know.”

He also said: “I’m not sitting here to do my job trying to keep my job. I’m not scared of that. If people like the way I do my job, they’ll elect me another four years if I run. If they don’t like it, they’ll hire somebody they think will do a better job. I understand the process. I’m OK with that.”

The protesters outside City Hall also appeared newly emboldened to stop Emanuel’s controversial plan to build a $95 million police academy in West Garfield Park. But Sawyer predicts the #NoCopAcademy movement won’t succeed.

Video by Fran Spielman

“The police academy is going forward,” Sawyer said. “I’m more concerned right now about who’s gonna build it. I want to make sure that black contractors are actively involved in putting that building up and that we have a shot in the arm in a West Side area that … has not seen economic development in over 40 years.”

Sawyer said he has no problem with Emanuel’s decision to slow-walk negotiations on a new police contract and punt that hot potato to his successor.

“He should hand that off to the next mayor. The next mayor should have hands-on discussion about what goes on with FOP for the next several years,” Sawyer said.

“We still have conditions that we’ve put out there as a Black Caucus as it relates to reforming the police department that we’re still going to push. We’re not stopping that.”

Video by Ashlee Rezin