In November of 2015, the dash cam video footage of the shooting death of Laquan McDonald was released by order of a Cook County judge. It was footage that the city had worked to suppress, claiming it would hinder the investigation as to why Officer Jason Van Dyke, who has since been charged with first-degree murder, shot the 17-year-old McDonald 16 times.
Of course, demonstrations have taken place, with protestors railing against the alleged corruption within the Chicago Police Department. They also want Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has also fired his Police Superintendent, Garry McCarthy, to resign as well. Many have been saying that the mayor’s office had been working to suppress the footage, not due to any detrimental impact it might have on the investigation, but because Emanuel was running for re-election and needed black voter support. On that matter, new emails have shed new light, showing coordination between Emanuel’s office, the Chicago Police and the Independent Police Review Authority. As the Associated Press wrote, the communications clearly show that the mayor’s office knew this shooting could be “politically explosive.” Fox23Chicago added that there's also allegations that police falsified eyewitness accounts and other instances of police coercion:
Emanuel has denied ever seeing the video prior to its release, a contention many activists have said they do not believe. The emails do not appear to contradict Emanuel's claim, though they show how City Hall grew increasingly concerned that the video could pose a major public-relations problem.
In early December 2014, Scott Ando, head of the Independent Police Review Authority — publicly touted by the mayor as uniquely independent in its probes of police shootings — singled out the case. He sent an email to the mayor's deputy chief of staff, Janey Rountree, with a link to a website that raised questions about police accounts of the shooting.
Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins sent a flurry of emails about media inquiries into video of the shooting. His subject line on a Dec. 10, 2014, email to fellow Emanuel staffers included the headline in one Chicago newspaper: "If Chicago police have video of teen shooting, let's see it: advocates."
The risk that a publicly released video could blow up not just locally but also nationally was made by lawyers from McDonald's family, who reached out to the city about a settlement in early 2015, just over a month before Emanuel's re-election.
The publication added that on March 6, Jeffrey J. Neslund, the McDonald family attorney, wrote a letter to the city’s attorneys noting that the camera footage would place the Windy City in a horrible light. He wanted $16 million in a settlement, which was knocked down to a $5 million settlement. Ando, who the AP noted is supposed to “maintain a distance” from the mayor’s office and the Chicago police, asked that the transcripts of the witness interviews be given to the city's law department for “settlement negotiations with" the McDonald family. Collins also seems to have been working closely with the IPRA regarding messaging as well:
In May, Collins cautioned IPRA spokesman Larry Merritt to "tread lightly" when a reporter asked for an IPRA interview about the case.
"Can anyone do an interview? I think we need to accept some of these opportunities," Merritt wrote in a May 26 email to top Emanuel aides and Ando. "These stories are getting done with or without us."
Collins responded: "I completely agree that we need to engage more, but if their focus is on specifics (sic) investigations we should tread very lightly. This is about Laquan McDonald and we should not do interviews about open investigations."
Also in May, Collins complained to colleagues that IPRA did not follow his recommendation on how to respond to a TV station about McDonald.
Days before the video's release, Collins wrote to police and law department representatives urging them to speak with "one voice" on the topic.
Months before the video was made public, Emanuel's administration was well aware of growing outrage about the case. In a late July email exchange, top Emanuel aides worried about the perception of a cover-up and noted recent news stories.
This only compounds the pressure Rahm is facing in the wake of this crisis. For starters, no one really believes that he hasn’t seen the video. His approval rating is hovering in the high-teens, and a state legislator put forward a bill that would establish protocols to recall the mayor of Chicago; Attorney General Amy Madigan endorsed it. NBC Chicago reported that if the bill passes the State House and Senate (and of course the blessing of the governor’s pen), along with 85,000 signatures and the support of two city aldermen, a recall election could occur.
The city’s tension over this incident has reached a boiling point, which was exacerbated when Chicago Police, already under fire, shot three people the day after Christmas; two of them fatally. And, yes, whether use of deadly force is being questioned.
According to CNN, officers were responding to a domestic disturbance call, where 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier, who his family said was mentally ill, was threatening his father with an aluminum baseball bat. On a more tragic note, 55-year-old Betty Jones, the LaGrier family’s downstairs neighbor, was also shot and killed after Quintonio reportedly charged at officers leading to him being fatally shot. Jones was asked by Quintonio’s father to let the police in when they arrived. The news organization added that Quintonio’s father filed a wrongful death suit.
This recent event caused the mayor to cut short his vacation to Cuba, which was made public by Politico’s Mike Allen, much to Emanuel’s annoyance. Last Wednesday, the mayor announced that he was instituting overhauls into use of force training for future officers and increasing the number of tasers issued. This doesn’t seem to be winning over the public trust, and now Al Sharpton has called on the mayor to resign. Emanuel’s fall has even reaped casualties within his own ranks after an aide of his was assaulted during a prayer vigil for Jones and LeGrier.
Regardless, this is Chicago. Should we be shocked that the mayor’s office tried to suppress video footage because it would make the city look bad–or the emails showing close coordination between the entities in charge of investigating the McDonald shooting and holding those responsible accountable? Sadly, we shouldn’t. Rahm needed to win re-election and seemingly put the community outreach and police accountability decision-making on the backburner. Maybe Rahm didn’t watch the video prior to the November release, but surely he and his staff knew for months that a public relations nightmare was upon them. You saw this with Collins’ emails about a unified message about the investigation, and surely, his deputy chief of staff, Rountree, and other top aides, at this point knew the police accounts did not match up. Isn’t this something to discuss at length with your boss?
At the same time, the way the mayor’s office has handled this horrific shooting is that they tread water. Yes, the negative media tidal wave would come, protests would probably erupt, but Chicago being a Democratic bastion–and Rahm having lots of friends within the party–they could apologize for the incident, which he did, and demand reforms (that were also put forward) and survive.
Maybe Rahm survives this fiasco. It’s entirely possible. Yet, it hinges on the proposed recall bill not passing, which is dubious. Rahm did win re-election, and with the absence of the recall protocols–the voters are stuck with him. One saving grace for the mayor is that more than a few crazies start to make the movement urging him to step down look unhinged. Yes, I’m referring to those who think the Chicago Police Department should be defunded. That’s not going to happen. At any rate, it’s probably not insane to suggest that Rahm a) shouldn’t even think about running for re-election or b) if he does run, he would lose, most likely to a primary challenger. Either way, in the end, protestors will probably get their wish; Rahm will be gone. At the same time, this could come much, much sooner if that recall bill is signed into law. Emanuel has lost the public trust, and these latest polling numbers suggest that this could be irreparable damage.