Laquan McDonald changed everything for Mayor Rahm Emanuel — and the police

ANALYSIS: Changes in the Chicago Police Department under Emanuel’s watch were largely spurred by one thing: the police shooting of the 17-year-old.

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Police dashcam footage that captured the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.

The effects of the release of the Laquan McDonald video are still being felt today and will be for years to come.

Chicago Police Department/Distributed by the Associated Press

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure as the city’s chief executive has been marked by wholesale changes in the Chicago Police Department’s policies and leadership.

And while more than 4,300 people were murdered in Chicago during Emanuel’s eight years as mayor, the changes were largely spurred by the death of one person: Laquan McDonald.

Attorneys for the city fought against the release of the video that showed the 17-year-old’s 2014 murder in the middle of South Pulaski Road, only to have a Cook County judge order its release months after Emanuel had secured his second term in a runoff election against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. The City Council approved a $5 million settlement for McDonald’s family before a lawsuit was filed.

The release of the tape sent shockwaves through the city that still reverberate today and will for years to come.

Police Supt. Garry McCarthy was fired. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost her re-election bid. Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 81 months in prison for shooting McDonald 16 times.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy appear at a news conference, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy appear at a news conference, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015.

AP Photos

Emanuel faced calls to resign, but he stood his ground, implementing a series of reforms that angered everyone from rank-and-file cops to activists who championed the release of the McDonald video.

Putting it bluntly, the mayor became a punching bag for both sides. But his police department claims it has turned a page after the fallout from the video’s release — and that additional cops that the mayor has put on the street, as well as investments in technology-based policing, ultimately will make Chicago a safer city.

The McDonald video fallout

Addressing the City Council shortly after the video’s release, Emanuel acknowledged a “code of silence” within the police department.

In 2016, the first full year after the tape came to light, murders in Chicago soared to levels not seen since the historically violent mid-1990s. The number of killings decreased in 2017 and 2018, though those totals still outpaced the number of homicides in 2014 and 2015.

The U.S. Department of Justice investigated the CPD and found officers were poorly trained and seldom disciplined for misconduct. Then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued the city in an effort to secure a consent decree that would codify long-sought changes within the police department. A federal judge approved the negotiated plan in early 2019, much to the chagrin of the union representing rank-and-file Chicago police officers.

“This agreement builds on reforms that we have already made,” Emanuel said in 2018. “It creates an enforceable, durable and sustainable framework for systemic changes in the Chicago Police Department.”

Before the consent decree was agreed upon, the CPD moved to change its use-of-force policy to focus on the “sanctity of life” while equipping more officers with body cameras and stun guns.

Most of the CPD’s 22 police districts have been equipped with Strategic Decision Support Centers — data analytics centers that allow police to dispatch resources and change strategies in real time.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson wearing a body camera before going out on patrol.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson wearing a body camera before going out on patrol.

Sun-Times file photo

Emanuel, though, has been ripped from all sides for various aspects of the police department’s reform efforts.

The union representing rank-and-file officers has repeatedly said they don’t see the changes as necessary and the reform efforts could put officers in harm’s way. Meanwhile, activists called the plans for a new $95 million police training facility misguided and emblematic of misplaced priorities.

The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights said that the consent decree, while binding, should not be a feather in Emanuel’s cap.

“Laquan McDonald’s murder woke up many of us to the policing crisis in this city,” the committee said in a statement. “But when face-to-face with this wake-up call, the mayor’s office didn’t demonstrate the bold leadership Chicagoans desperately needed to change policing for the better. Instead, he was dragged reluctantly to the negotiation table by community members and the Attorney General’s office.”

No U-turns

For his part, Emanuel has repeatedly said that “there are no U-turns on the road to reform.”

Attorneys for the city fought to stop the release of the McDonald video but, in November 2015, a county judge ordered its release. City lawyers did not appeal, though Emanuel said he’d prefer the video stay out of the public eye while federal authorities investigated the shooting.

Weeks of unrest followed the release of the tape, with massive protests winding through the city. A new generation of activists emerged and the fractured relationship between the CPD and the city’s minority communities was laid bare for the world to see.

 Demonstrators protest outside of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home on December 29, 2015.

Demonstrators protest outside of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home on December 29, 2015.


Saying that his police superintendent had become “a distraction,” Emanuel fired McCarthy on Dec. 1, 2015, as McCarthy was making the rounds on local TV news morning shows.

A South Side community leader and former Chicago police officer, Richard Wooten, said that McCarthy — who Emanuel hired in 2011 — was brought on as the department was prioritizing officer morale.

“I believe what happened when McCarthy came in, his main function was to bring morale back up within the department. But at the same time, the community as still suffering from a lack of engagement,” Wooten said. “Their main focal point was to build a department of motivated officers to go out and do their job.”

With McCarthy out, Emanuel tasked the Chicago Police Board — led at the time by his eventual successor, Lori Lightfoot — to conduct a nationwide search for a permanent replacement. Soon after, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the CPD.

On Dec. 8, 2015, Emanuel delivered an impassioned speech to the City Council, saying that while reforms were coming, truths about the police department first needed to be acknowledged.

“As we move forward, I am looking for a new leader of the Chicago Police Department to address the problems at the very heart of the policing profession,” he said. “The problem is sometimes referred to as the ‘Thin Blue Line.’ The problem is other times referred to as the ‘code of silence.’ It is this tendency to ignore. It is the tendency to deny. It is the tendency in some cases to cover-up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues.”

The Johnson era

At the conclusion of its search, the police board submitted three finalists to Emanuel, but he instead opted to go his own way, picking Eddie Johnson, a Chicago police veteran and the department’s then-chief of patrol. Johnson, an African American man who grew up in Cabrini-Green Homes, did not submit his name for the job, but accepted it nonetheless.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson looks on as Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during a press conference at the city’s 11th District police station, Wednesday morning, Oct. 24, 2018.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson looks on as Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during a news conference Oct. 24, 2018.

Sun-Times file photo

Wooten spent 13 years in the Gresham District, which was previously under Johnson’s command. Wooten spoke highly of Johnson’s community outreach efforts during his time in the Gresham District, noting that “everybody loved him” as commander. Leading the department, though, Johnson has less time for relationship-building with community members.

“Supt. Johnson is very community-oriented,” Wooten said. “But being superintendent, he can’t be as community oriented as [he was] when he was commander.”

With the Justice Department investigating and Johnson settling in at the helm of the police department, murders in Chicago surged.

“The bad guy has become emboldened to do what they do because the national narrative is against the police right now,” Johnson said in late 2016.

The Sun-Times reported 781 people were murdered in Chicago in 2016, the most in any year since the mid-1990s. In the years since, though, that total has fallen sharply. In 2019, Chicago is on pace to see about half of 2016’s total, with 157 murders reported through mid-May, according to a log maintained by the Sun-Times.

The Justice Department’s long-awaited findings were unveiled in January 2017.

“We found that the Chicago Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force, including deadly force and non-deadly force. This pattern included . . . shooting at people who presented no immediate threat and tazing people for not following verbal commands,” said Vanita Gupta, then the Justice Department’s head of civil rights.

Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the report found “reasonable cause” that the police department engaged in a pattern of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. She blamed that partially on “severely deficient training procedures” and “accountability systems.”

Attorney General Loretta Lynch discusses the U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found reasonable cause that the Chicago Police Department engaged in a pattern of using excessive force

Attorney General Loretta Lynch discusses the U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found reasonable cause that the Chicago Police Department engaged in a pattern of using excessive force.

Sun-Times file photo

The agency tasked with investigating alleged officer misconduct, the Independent Police Review Authority, was scrapped in favor to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. COPA now releases most documents and video related to their investigations within 60 days.

But as City Hall and CPD leadership moved to change departmental practices and policies, rank-and-file officers signaled their resistance. In April 2017, the Fraternal Order of Police — the union that represents officers — elected new leadership that ran on a platform of opposition to the changes facing the department.

A spokesman for the FOP declined to answer questions from the Sun-Times, referring a reporter to the union’s blog.

“This lawsuit and the proposed consent decree that would arise from it are based upon a biased federal investigation from a presidential administration with a clear antipathy to law enforcement, an antipathy that has drastically undermined law and order throughout the country and placed the most innocent and vulnerable members of society at the greatest peril,” the FOP said in a statement as consent decree negotiations were unfolding.

The FOP — which has been working without a new contract for two years — argued that its membership didn’t have a voice in the negotiations and filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit between the city and state. That motion was shot down, with federal district and appellate judges noting that the union waited “for nearly a year” to try to intervene, despite realizing the consent decree might affect its interests.

The American Civil Liberties Union, MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University and Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago signed an agreement with the attorney general’s office in 2018 giving them input into the consent decree negotiations, a move that further aggravated the FOP.

Though they weren’t party to the lawsuit, input from rank-and-file officers was welcomed as the decree’s draft was being crafted. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, though, Emanuel insisted that “we negotiated a consent decree with the Illinois attorney general and deliberately gave police officers a seat at the table.”

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