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Black Caucus chairman: What took Alvarez so long to file charges?

The chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus on Tuesday questioned why it took Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez 13 months to charge a white Chicago Police officer with first-degree murder in the shooting of an African-American teenager.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said “somebody dropped the ball” in the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and all signs point to Alvarez, who is fighting for her political life in a contested Democratic primary against two challengers, one of whom is African-American.

“It’s politically motivated that you decide to do it at this time when you have generously had 10 months — I won’t even go back to the full 13 months — to make a determination to file charges and didn’t. Oftentimes, it takes days to make these types of determinations” when there’s an incriminating video of Van Dyke firing 16 shots into McDonald’s body, Sawyer said.

“The burden lies with the state’s attorney’s office on why this was held as long as it has. Maybe the dual state and federal investigation delayed it. But there is no legitimate reason why it was stalled.”

The Black Caucus has called a news conference for 10 a.m. Wednesday to “call for accountability in government and peace in the streets” now that the video has been released.

Asked if the Caucus would renew its call for Chicago Supt. Garry McCarthy’s ouster, Sawyer said, “I’m not going to say `yes’ or `no.’ I will defer [to his colleagues]. Everything is fluid now.”

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office, said police-involved shootings trigger “long, meticulous and thorough” investigations that typically take between 10 and 20 months to complete.

“We’ve had an ongoing investigation with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office since very shortly after the shooting occurred. We’ve been working diligently with our federal partners on the complex investigation. It was our intention to announce the decision to bring the charges with the U.S. Attorney’s office. But, that was not possible. Their investigation is still going on,” Daly said.

“The court’s decision to release this video has changed the timing of this announcement but it did not dictate the decision to bring charges. With the video going public, the state’s attorney felt it was in the interest of public safety to make this announcement.”

In a rare show of defiance last month, 14 of Chicago’s 18 black aldermen, including Sawyer, demanded that Mayor Rahm Emanuel fire McCarthy after another bloody weekend on Chicago streets. They were motivated, in part, by McCarthy’s decision to replace retiring First Deputy Police Supt. Al Wysinger with John Escalante, who is Hispanic.

Emanuel responded by reiterating his longstanding support for McCarthy, who is surpassed in longevity, only by former Police Supt. Terry Hillard.

Hours after a judge ordered the tape released, Sawyer turned up the heat on McCarthy by demanding to know why Van Dyke was still on the city payroll, even though he was stripped of his police powers and assigned to desk duty shortly after the shooting.

But Sawyer shifted his focus from McCarthy to Alvarez after Emanuel explained during a closed-door meeting with the Black Caucus that the police contract precluded the city from firing Van Dyke.

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.

“We talked about the process in a police-involved shooting. It’s more complicated than just saying, `You’re fired,’” Sawyer said.

“Long term, we have to look at why we keep murderers on the police force and on the payroll. Maybe it requires changing the police contract. I know that’s long term, but we need to look at  it.”

Now that the video has been released, Sawyer said he’s concerned about a lot more than violent demonstrations on the streets of Chicago similar to those that followed the death of black men and teens at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and New York City.

“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,” Sawyer said.

“It might even be a hindrance to recruiting. 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.”

Emanuel has held a series of closed-door meetings with black ministers, business owners and members of the Black Caucus. His message to all of them and to the media was the same: Feel free to exercise your First Amendment rights, but do it in a peaceful way, not a destructive one.

Sawyer said he hopes and prays the inevitable protests are peaceful and constructive.

“Of course there are going to be protests. If that tape gets released and it shows what we think it will show, it will show a police officer executing a child. That’s outrage. That will make people mad and it should. It should be a call to action,” the alderman said.

“Sometimes tragedies like this pull a community together. Maybe that’s what will happen. Get people engaged speaking out, getting more involved, voting. All of these things we don’t see enough of. There’s been a lot of disengagement in our community. Maybe people feel numb to what’s gone on. Maybe this will spark that outrage again. I hope there is no trouble. Trouble is mostly caused by outside agitators. People who live here don’t want to destroy our city.”