It’s fitting that Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he’s not seeking re-election the day before Officer Jason Van Dyke is to go on trial for the murder of Laquan McDonald.
Just as mass school closings defined Emanuel’s first term and set him at odds with the black community – many voters only gave him a second chance at the urging of then-President Barack Obama – so the killing of McDonald, along with federal investigation and the demand for judicial oversight of the Chicago Police Department that resulted, have defined his second term.
Indeed, by all appearances, if Emanuel had his way, Van Dyke would not be on trial. Because the upcoming trial, the investigation, and the prospect of a consent decree wouldn’t have happened without the video. And Emanuel did everything he could to keep the video under wraps.
The video, of course, shows McDonald veering away from officers when Van Dyke steps out of his vehicle and almost immediately begins shooting, walking toward McDonald and pumping bullet after bullet into his body even after he falls to the ground. Compare that with Van Dyke’s statement to the investigating detective, where he claims that McDonald was “swinging (his) knife” in an “aggressive manner,” that Van Dyke ordered McDonald to drop his knife “multiple times,” that McDonald “continued to advance” toward Van Dyke, and that the officer “backpedaled” as he shot McDonald.
Compare it to CPD’s statement the day after that McDonald “refused to comply with orders to drop the knife and continued to approach the officers.”
That was business as usual: a fatal shooting by an officer – one of 44 police shootings that year – an official statement clearing the officer, and a long drawn-out investigation with inconclusive results.
The video completely undercuts the official narrative. It became known only because a whistleblower from within law enforcement alerted civil rights attorney Craig Futterman of its existence. Emanuel’s administration insisted that a $5 million legal settlement with McDonald’s family – negotiated before the family even filed a lawsuit at a moment when Emanuel faced a tough runoff election – include a ban on making the video public. Emanuel then went to court to fight a Freedom of Information action by journalist Brandon Smith.
Emanuel was unsuccessful, and a judge ordered the video’s release. The day after it was made public – despite all the claims about a highly complex and sensitive investigation that couldn’t be compromised – Van Dyke was indicted. The bureaucratic stall was revealed as a cover-up.
That was consistent with Emanuel’s record. The video release came at a time when cellphone and dashcam videos had begun exposing the cover stories of police departments across the country in unjustified shootings of African-Americans. Emanuel did not welcome this new transparency, saying a few months before the McDonald video came to light that what was termed the “YouTube effect” was causing officers to go “fetal,” that increased scrutiny was undermining police morale and contributing to increasing crime rates. It was an argument that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would employ a couple of years later.
The outcome of the trial is far from certain, though legal commentators say the existence of the video makes Van Dyke’s self-defense claim more difficult. Judge Vincent Gaughan denied a defense motion to exclude the video from the trial but will allow Van Dyke’s team to use an animated simulation of the shooting, despite the prosecution’s complaint that it includes inaccuracies. (It shows Van Dyke standing still rather than walking toward McDonald, for one thing.) In general, the law gives police officers extra leeway in shooting people they consider to be threats, and Gaughan is allowing the defense to introduce evidence of McDonald’s troubled past to bolster its case – though independent legal experts have questioned that decision.
Contrary to Emanuel’s assertion after the video was released that “one individual needs to be held accountable,” accountability for McDonald’s death doesn’t end with Van Dyke. In November, three officers including Van Dyke’s partner and the detective who led the investigation into the shooting will go on trial, charged with felony conspiracy and obstruction of justice. They have pleaded not guilty. It remains unclear why they were the only officers charged in the cover-up.
After Van Dyke’s trial, four additional officers will go before the Police Board. Supt. Eddie Johnson has recommended their dismissal based on an investigation by Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.
Ferguson reportedly called for the firing of 11 CPD members for making false statements. These included two top department brass, Deputy Chief David McNaughton and Chief of Detectives Eugene Roy. Johnson let them quietly retire rather than face discipline.
The IG’s report also revealed that Johnson and his predecessor, Garry McCarthy, were in meetings where the video was viewed but the shooting was approved. If nothing else, this raises the question of what standard Johnson was using when he said, after being named superintendent, that he had never witnessed police misconduct during his entire career with CPD.
Of course, Emanuel is ultimately responsible for the operation of the police department. Before the McDonald case he showed no interest in police reform, denying that a “code of silence” existed in CPD, endorsing the promotion of a lieutenant with a long record of misconduct, and allowing provisions in the police union contract that weaken accountability to stand. After the video, he repeatedly waffled on reform and acted only under public pressure.
By bowing out now, Emanuel has denied Chicagoans an opportunity to hold him accountable. But beyond the mayor, there’s a whole system that needs to be held to account.