Now that Rahm Emanuel has gone against his political instincts by firing his larger-than-life police superintendent, the mayor faces an even bigger political dilemma that could define his legacy.
He must find a worthy replacement for Garry McCarthy without making worse racial tensions brought to a boil by the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
The video played around the world of a white Chicago Police officer pumping 16 rounds into the body of the black teenager not only sealed McCarthy’s fate. It also made the job of filling McCarthy’s shoes that much more difficult.
Hispanic elected officials will almost certainly demand that the permanent job be awarded to First Deputy Police Superintendent John Escalante, who will serve as acting superintendent until a permanent replacement is chosen.
But Escalante is already a political flashpoint. McCarthy’s decision to appoint him to replace retiring First Deputy Al Wysinger, who is African-American, infuriated the City Council’s Black Caucus and triggered demands for McCarthy’s ouster even before the Laquan McDonald video was made public.
Hispanics may also lobby behind the scenes for Hiram Grau, the former Chicago deputy superintendent and former state police director who was chosen by Emanuel to recommend police reforms as part of a five-member Task Force on Police Accountability.
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Having succeeded in forcing Emanuel’s hand, black elected officials are equally certain to demand that McCarthy’s replacement be an African-American to restore public confidence between citizens and police in the black community so shaken by the department’s handling of the McDonald shooting.
Several aldermen are openly lobbying for Wysinger’s return, even though he is best remembered for being the statue who stood motionless behind McCarthy at news conferences.
“I believe in my heart that Al Wysinger will be a great choice to lead the department. Al has the respect of the community as well as the entire police department,” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who lobbied hard for McCarthy’s ouster, said the new superintendent need not necessarily be black. But it must be someone willing to make the “structural changes” necessary “so there’s not an effort to cover up, deny, misplace evidence and perjure when bad things happen.”
“The mayor complains about the code of silence in the black and Hispanic communities that prevent people from coming forward and sharing information. What about the code of silence in the police department that protects bad cops?” Preckwinkle said.
Another strong black candidate is Charles Ramsey, the former deputy police superintendent who went on to lead the police departments in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. Ramsey was Emanuel’s first choice in 2011 before pricing himself out of the market by demanding a salary in excess of $400,000.
The case for a black superintendent is strengthened by the fact that the surge in shootings and gang violence under McCarthy’s watch disproportionately impacted the African-American community and left many of those neighborhoods under siege.
They need only point to the execution murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee as proof. The boy was lured into an ally by a gang member seeking revenge after his brother was killed in a gang-related shooting.
That initial nationwide search for a new superintendent will be conducted by the Police Board, whose president, Lori Lightfoot, is another member of Emanuel’s Task Force on Police Accountability.
They will narrow the list to 10 candidates then winnow the names to three finalists from which the mayor can choose. Escalante will almost certainly be one of them unless he blows his audition.
On Tuesday, Emanuel was asked whether a new superintendent needs to be an outsider or black.
“I’m not looking for a type. I’m looking for a professional that can lead the department and make sure that they have a robust record of bringing results in public safety,” the mayor said.
“I want to have somebody that will meet the needs of public safety, help obviously in this issue of both changing the culture, putting in place the building blocks to restore the confidence and trust that we want to see in Chicago and have a record in the police department of invigorating . . . not only commitment to professionalism but the type of commitment I want to see to make the changes necessary.”
Lightfoot added, “It needs to be somebody with a track record of positive engagement with the community . . . There’s also a need for terrorism experience and ideas to combat violence and street crime.”
If Emanuel dares to chose a white superintendent, former Englewood District Commander-turned State Police Director Leo Schmitz would be a strong candidate. Schmitz was a star of the CNN documentary series, “Chicagoland.”
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley was a me-first politician who never hesitated to throw people under the bus, including two police superintendents: Phil Cline and Matt Rodriguez.
Emanuel is far more loyal to his people. It goes against his grain to create political scapegoats.
But the steady drumbeat for McCarthy’s ouster got too loud to ignore, particularly for a mayor who had promised during his second term to listen more to African-American voters, who were alienated by his record 50 school closings.
The Chicago Sun-Times may well have put the final nail in McCarthy’s coffin with a front-page editorial demanding his ouster.
“I have a lot of loyalty to what he’s done and him. But . . . no one person trumps my commitment and my responsibility to the city of Chicago and its future,” the mayor said.
Pressed to explain what his only police superintendent had done wrong, he said: “I have a lot of confidence in the work and results that he’s done. But our goal . . . is to build the trust and confidence of the public. And at this point and this juncture for the city, given what we’re working on, he has become an issue, rather than dealing with the issue, and a distraction.”
Emanuel has been under fire for keeping the McDonald video under wraps until after the April 7 mayoral runoff and waiting until one week after the election to settle the case for $5 million even before the McDonald family had filed a lawsuit. The video was released only after a judge’s order.
On Tuesday, the mayor was asked what responsibility he bears for the crisis of confidence that has, once again, undermined the trust between citizens and police in the black community so essential to solving crime.
“I take responsibility and none of us are above it . . . I have taken certain steps prior to this day. I’m taking steps today. As I told you, this is a work in progress in finding a solution [to police accountability]. It’s not the end of the problem. It’s the beginning of a solution towards the problem,” the mayor said.
Emanuel was asked about demands for his own resignation. He kept his cool and simply said a sarcastic, “Thank you.”
On Black Friday, the same day protesters infuriated by the McDonald video shut down Michigan Avenue, McCarthy insisted that the mayor “has my back.”
Instead, he got a political knife in the back delivered Tuesday morning after a series of conversations with his boss over the last few days.
The Emanuel-McCarthy dialogue started with the superintendent defending himself and making the case to finish the job he came to Chicago to do and ended with a realization that his tenure as superintendent, second only to Terry Hillard’s, had come to an end.
“After repeated meetings with community and faith leaders and conversations with elected officials, the mayor realized community support for the superintendent had gotten so low, he could no longer be effective in his job. It was an evolution of conversations that got him to that point,” said a mayoral confidante, who asked to remain anonymous.