Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel claims he’s addressing police failures in the killing of Laquan McDonald. But real change will require more than just cleaning house.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked for the resignation of Garry McCarthy, the head of his city’s police department, on Tuesday amid the storm of controversy concerning the police killing of a black teenager. Last October, Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, firing 16 shots into his body, all of which was captured on police dash-cam video. That video was just made public a couple of days before Thanksgiving—the same day that Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder, more than a year after the killing.
Questions around why it took so long to charge Van Dyke, who remained on payroll until shortly before his arrest, and why there was such a long delay in publicizing the video have caused many in Chicago to call for the firing of Superintendent McCarthy—and for Mayor Emanuel to step down.
Emanuel did not show any signs of intending to relinquish his post in a press conference Tuesday, but he did announce that he would like McCarthy to step down. McCarthy did resign Tuesday afternoon.
“I have a lot of support and confidence in the work that he’s done,” said Emanuel of McCarthy at the press conference, “but our goal is to build trust and confidence with the public. And at this point and juncture in the city, he has become a ... distraction.”
As for the unresolved issues around Van Dyke and the McDonald video, Emanuel announced that he was forming a new task force on police accountability.
“The shooting of Laquan McDonald requires more than just words,” said Emanuel in a press statement. “It requires that we act: that we take more concrete steps to prevent such abuses in the future, secure the safety and the rights of all Chicagoans, and build stronger bonds of trust between our police and the communities they’re sworn to serve.”
The five-member task force is set to look into how the city can improve oversight over police misconduct and create a more effective system for identifying police who show early signs of being abusive or problematic. They’ll also look into whether the city needs to change its rules around when and how the public is able to view videos of civilians hurt or killed by police.
Emanuel said that “it is clear that there is a conflict of interest” between the public’s right to see police videos when misconduct and killings occur and the precautions necessary to make sure investigations aren’t compromised. The reason the video was held from public view was because it was “material evidence” used in investigations into the McDonald killing conducted by the state’s attorney’s office, as well as the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office. The state investigation has concluded, but the federal investigations are still open.
Others in the city have speculated that Emanuel sought to keep the video private for so long because he didn’t want it to affect his re-election this past April. A journalist asked Emanuel at the press conference why his new task force has been given a report-back deadline set after next year’s primary elections. Emanuel has denied that any of this has to do with politics, and replied to the journalist that if the task force “can get it done earlier, then great,” but he wants them to “focus and go deep” in examining the “systemic problems” in the Chicago police department.
The police accountability task force includes two African Americans and a Latino American:
- Sergio Acosta is a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson and a former federal prosecutor
- Joe Ferguson is Inspector General of the City of Chicago and a former federal prosecutor
- Hiram Grau is the former Director of the Illinois State Police and former Deputy Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department
- Lori Lightfoot is president of the Chicago Police Board, a partner at Mayer Brown, and a former federal prosecutor
- Randolph Stone is a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, director of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Project Clinic, and a former Cook County Public Defender
McCarthy may have been blindsided by Tuesday’s news. Tuesday morning, he was on a local radio show discussing police misconduct and the Van Dyke/McDonald video, saying he would be “staying the course.” The now-deposed police chief just hosted the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago, where Obama calmed down talk of “Ferguson Effect” crime waves— something McCarthy had alluded to earlier this year. McCarthy also was one of the major-city police chiefs who joined a new initiative focused on reducing mass incarceration.
But he was also under fire from community members and police reform advocates for numerous charges of police harassment and brutality, especially when it was revealed that many Chicago police had been the subjects of dozens of citizen complaints—as had Van Dyke—but had not been disciplined.
Asked by a journalist if the Chicago police department suffers from a “culture” of misconduct, Emanuel agreed, and said that McCarthy’s replacement would need to be “dedicated to the goals” of “not just changing the culture … but building the trust and confidence of the public.”
Meanwhile, law professor Bernard E. Harcourt called the way Emanuel handled the Van Dyke/McDonald video ordeal a “cover-up,” and suggested that the only way to restore public confidence was for the mayor to resign as well. Members of the Chicago-based Black Youth Project, who recently staged an effective Black Friday boycott in the city, have refused to meet with Emanuel and don’t appear to be quieting down anytime soon. Broken public confidence may already be beyond repair.