For the last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been under fire from protesters and fellow elected officials in Chicago — and from activists and pundits across the country — to clean up his police department and fire his top cop Garry McCarthy following the release of a video that showed a white officer repeatedly shooting a black teenager before he died in the street.
On Tuesday, Emanuel will seek to quell some of the growing chorus of criticism by announcing a task force his administration says “will review the system of accountability, oversight and training that is currently in place for Chicago’s police officers,” according to a brief news release issued late Monday.
Appointing a committee to look into an issue is a tried-and-true tactic elected officials long have employed to buy time and breathing room when faced with a scandal or crisis. In this case, Emanuel will give the yet-to-be-named panel four months to make recommendations for changes in the city’s police department.
Calling for a task force is unlikely to alleviate repeated calls for McCarthy’s firing or tamp down the #resignrahm hashtag that has surged on social media in recent days. But it gives Emanuel something else to talk to reporters and the public about other than the viral video of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot repeatedly by officer Jason Van Dyke, much of it while the teenager lay prone in the middle of Pulaski Road on the Southwest Side.
Fueling the firestorm is the fact that Emanuel fought for the better part of a year not to release the police dashboard camera video of the shooting. It wasn’t until a Cook County judge ruled earlier this month that Emanuel and his administration had violated the state’s open records law and ordered the video to be released to the public that the mayor agreed to do so.
In addition, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez only filed a first-degree murder charge against Van Dyke, whom she alleged shot McDonald 16 times in 14 seconds, after the judge ordered the city to release the video — 13 months after the Oct. 20, 2014 shooting.
Emanuel has argued he didn’t release the recording for fear of interfering with the investigation, though Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled there were no grounds for such a position. And Alvarez has maintained she was waiting for federal investigators to wrap up their own investigation, but finally decided to move forward on her own out of concern for “public safety” after Emanuel was ordered to release the shooting video.
But the slow pace of the investigation, Emanuel’s refusal for months to release the video, a lack of discernible audio from police videos of the shooting and an 86-minute gap in surveillance video at a nearby Burger King at the time of the shooting have led to cover-up accusations lobbed by everyone from the city’s aldermen and activists to op-ed columnists and TV commentators across the country. It’s also led to a week of street demonstrations, including a highly-publicized march down Michigan Avenue on Friday that shut down many stores on the busiest shopping day of the year.
At the eye of the storm is McCarthy. The City Council Black Caucus, several Latino alderman, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the editorial boards of the Sun-Times and Washington Post all have called for McCarthy to be fired.
“THIS TIME in Chicago, the police coverup failed,” the Post’s editorial begins before later turning its attention to McCarthy. “It was the police who maintained a code of silence despite at least seven other officers who witnessed the shooting at close range. That’s outrageous and should lead to further criminal inquiries and the immediate firing of the city’s police superintendent, Garry McCarthy.”
During September budget hearings, the black caucus called for McCarthy’s ouster and did so again last week. On Monday, Preckwinkle joined them, saying she’d suggested to Emanuel that he fire McCarthy. Preckwinkle said McCarthy either knew or should have known months ago that the initial story presented in the case was not true and that McDonald did not lunge at police before Van Dyke shot him.
In announcing that the city finally would release the video last week, Emanuel sought to portray the McDonald shooting as an isolated incident, the actions of a rogue cop acting on his own.
But Emanuel’s narrative comes against a backdrop of decades’ worth of Chicago police torture and wrongful conviction cases, corruption, and slapdash, ineffectual oversight practices in shootings and other excessive force actions by officers. Time and again, the police department has quickly cleared officers of allegations, only to have civil litigation later reveal video and other evidence that painted a much darker picture of police misconduct.
On Tuesday, Emanuel will seek to speak to those issues. The 11 a.m. event at City Hall will be his first news conference in a week, when he last appeared to announce the release of the McDonald shooting video.
Since then, the mayor lit the city’s Christmas tree, ran a 5K with his family on Thanksgiving (he finished 17th in his age group, his press shop announced) and quietly cut a ribbon for a playground in Washington Park on Sunday, his 56th birthday. His office only mentioned the event afterward when it released pictures.
After Emanuel’s last news conference, McCarthy was asked if he had the confidence of the mayor, and he responded that he did. After the black caucus again called for McCarthy’s resignation, Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn responded, “We’ve been clear that the mayor fully supports Superintendent McCarthy. This incident is a tragedy and it’s absolutely unacceptable, but Jason Van Dyke’s actions are not representative of the Superintendent McCarthy’s values, or of the hard-working men and women of the Chicago Police Department.”
Asked again Tuesday about Emanuel’s confidence in McCarthy, Quinn issued a shorter statement that wasn’t as strong, omitting the word “fully.”
“The mayor has been clear that Superintendent McCarthy has his support,” she said.
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