Rahm Emanuel stands behind Eddie T. Johnson of the Chicago Police Department as he addresses the news media. Teresa Crawford/AP

The Chicago trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke for killing Laquan McDonald is imminent. But even a guilty verdict can’t salvage Mayor Rahm Emanuel's legacy on police reform.

On September 6, just days after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he will not run for a third term, his office released a statement reporting that the city finalized its consent decree—the city’s agreement with the federal government to institute a sweeping compendium of court-enforced reforms in its embattled police department.

That same day, Chicago news outlets reported that Emanuel had acquiesced to a provision requiring officers to radio in to a dispatcher every time they pointed a gun at somebody. Until this week, Emanuel was against that and other critical reforms that would make police activities more transparent to the public. He welcomed this last reform only after announcing that he wasn’t running for reelection.  

While history will note Emanuel as the mayor at the dawn of a new era of police reform in Chicago, he will likely get none of the glory. Rather, he’ll be known as the leader whose decisions in one particularly egregious case of police brutality brought Chicagoans’ relationship with city law enforcement to a breaking point. That case is the killing of the African American teenager Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in 2015. Emanuel’s unforced errors in handling that case devastated Chicago families and blemished his mayoral legacy. He failed to take his own advice by letting the serious crisis of police misconduct go to waste. The question is whether there’s anything he can do now to change that.

The growing movement for police reform

Emanuel had the opportunity to do something truly transformative about Chicago police corruption—a well-documented problem that festered for decades before he became mayor, often under the protection of City Hall. The passionate and determined Black Lives Matter movement was seeded and sprouted during Emanuel’s first term (2011 to 2015). Fueled by numerous shocking accounts of police killings of African Americans around the U.S. that were going unpunished, the BLM network made accountability for police violence its flagship issue.

By the time of the 2015 deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Sandra Bland in Texas—both of whom died under questionable circumstances while in police custody—the BLM cause was ascendant. And nowhere did a collision between BLM and the police seem more inevitable at that point than in Chicago, where evidence of decades of police corruption and brutality concerning black and Latino civilians was surfacing, and it was beyond refutation.

This was the political climate that greeted Emanuel as he started his second term as mayor in mid-2015, and he could have gotten in front of the policing issue before a clash happened. Instead, just months into that term, he antagonized both sides. At an October 2015 White House gathering of law enforcement officials, Emanuel said Chicago police officers had gone “fetal”—that they were shrinking back in their public safety duties because of social media-driven backlash to police brutality, or out of fear they’d get caught on live-streaming services doing something shady. In that one statement, he scapegoated police reform activists and infantilized the police force.

What made Emanuel’s “fetal” comment worse was that he made it while sitting on damning video footage that implicated Chicago police officer Van Dyke in the shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014. Emanuel withheld the clip from public viewing for more than a year after the killing, citing pending investigations, but the few officials who did see it worried that its contents could jolt the public into possible riots. The video did not depict police in passive mode; instead, the dashboard camera footage showed Van Dyke firing his weapon on McDonald as he walked away from the officers. The only person left in a fetal position from that police encounter was McDonald, who died from the shooting.   

The official narrative

Up until the release of the video, the official narrative was that Laquan McDonald lunged at Van Dyke with a knife. The city settled with McDonald’s family for $5 million just days after Emanuel was reelected in April of 2015. A clause in the agreement stipulated that they could not show the video to anyone until the investigation and any resulting trial or process was complete. It was only because of the relentless FOIA filings and lawsuits of journalist Brandon Smith that Emanuel was forced by courts to publicly air the footage. When the city finally released it, just before Thanksgiving that year, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder. Until that point, he had been kept on the police payroll.

The argument that Van Dyke was an isolated “bad apple” cop on the force was undermined by data obtained by the Chicago-based media organization the Invisible Institute. Researchers there discovered through their own FOIA and lawsuit filings that tens of thousands of abuse complaints had been filed by Chicago residents since 2002, but the city only investigated a tiny percentage of them. An even smaller percentage of those complaints ended with disciplinary action. The Invisible Institute’s online Citizens Police Data Project maps where the city complaints were filed from, the kinds of complaints submitted, the officers named in those complaints, and how many complaints each officer received.

(Citizens Police Data Project/2015)

According to their findings, Van Dyke was the subject of 26 complaints of misconduct—20 involving excessive force. The first allegation against him, a personnel violation, happened not even a year after he joined the Chicago police force in 2001. It was information like this that Emanuel initially worked to keep cloaked from the public eye, just as he did with the McDonald footage, until courts made his administration come clean. University of Columbia law professor Bernard E. Harcourt flat-out called Emanuel’s handling of the McDonald case a “cover-up” in The New York Times.

“If you think about the sequence of events in the 13 months leading up to the release of the video, everything that happened was in support of that narrative,” said Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Invisible Institute. “Withholding the video, falsifying reports, officers commandeering and destroying a video [of the shooting] from Burger King [Ed. Note: the FBI disputes this], stonewalling the press endlessly and, ultimately, the $5 million settlement with the family of Laquan McDonald—all of that was in service of the official narrative and meant withholding information from the public. It’s what brought the Emanuel administration down essentially.”

Reform, on Emanuel’s terms

After the McDonald debacle, activists from Black Lives Matter and the Black Youth Project led protests around Chicago demanding that Emanuel’s resign. There were, in fact, many calls from both in and outside of Chicago, from activists and even elected officials for the mayor to step down. But Emanuel, who’s infamously hard-nosed, would not budge. Instead, he began taking other steps that would at least give the appearance that he was now serious about reforming the police.

He forced the resignation of the head of the police department, Garry McCarthy, in December of 2015, calling him a “distraction,” and declared that there was a culture of misconduct amongst the police force. Emanuel then assembled a task force to investigate that culture and to come up with recommendations for how to make the police department more accountable to the public. Around the same time, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it also would be investigating the Chicago police department for civil rights violations. Emanuel initially dismissed federal involvement as “misguided,” but later recanted and welcomed the Justice Department’s investigation after blowback from the public.

That kind of reversal (also seen recently on the proposal to have police radio in when they aim their gun at people) could be considered the Emanuel doctrine on police reform: Reject measures that might reveal humiliating or incriminating information about the police, until publicly forced to accede. Which perhaps explains why by January 2016, just over half of Chicagoans surveyed by the Chicago Tribune said they weren’t confident that Emanuel could handle police problems. For African Americans and Latinos it was 61 percent.  

Chicago’s police problem is also a race problem: The mayor’s task force finished its investigation in April of 2016, stating in its report that Chicago police “have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” According to the report, nearly three-quarters of those shot or killed by police officers between 2008 and 2015 were black, compared to 15 percent for Latinos and 8 percent for white victims. African Americans only comprise a third of Chicago’s population. Not only that, but in 2013, while Chicago police were far more likely to stop and search African Americans and Latinos than whites, police were far less likely to find drugs or weapons on people of color during those searches.

(Chicago Police Accountability Task Force)

The Justice Department’s investigative report, released in January 2017, found many of the same racial disparities, but also noted that it was the city’s own policies that allowed them to fester—notably by not taking citizen complaints about the police seriously. Federal investigators reported that the city had received over 30,000 complaints of police misconduct during the time Emanuel was mayor, but 98 percent of them resulted in no discipline for police officers. Reads the Justice Department’s report:

The City does not investigate the majority of cases it is required by law to investigate. ... Some of these investigations are ignored based on procedural hurdles in City agreements with its unions, but some are unilateral decisions by the accountability agencies to reduce caseloads and manage resources. ...Regardless of the reasons, this failure to fully investigate almost half of all police misconduct cases seriously undermines accountability. These are all lost opportunities to identify misconduct, training deficiencies, and problematic trends, and to hold officers and CPD accountable when misconduct occurs.

Once again, Emanuel initially tried to wiggle out of compliance: This time it was with the federal court-enforced consent decree process that typically follows U.S. Justice Department investigations. Emanuel attempted to secure a simpler reform deal with the Trump administration, but then agreed to the federal court oversight of the police months later, in yet another example of him being forced into consent.

“In the aftermath of the McDonald video the city was in a state of crisis, and there was a real opportunity for him to be a transcendent leader, but he never took advantage of the moment,” said Lori Lightfoot, the chair of Emanuel’s police accountability task force, who is currently running for mayor. “But Emanuel never truly understood the nuances of local policing. He’s looked at them through a purely political and transactional lens and hasn’t stepped back to understand that public safety is a sacred trust.”

“This standard of intent is untenable”

While the city wraps up its consent decree work, Lightfoot is concerned that the language isn’t strong enough on some of the more physical ways that police have been known to interact with civilians. Black Lives Matter shares these concerns, saying in a public statement that it “falls far short of what’s required in order to end the reign of lawlessness and brutality that we’ve endured under this Police Department.”  

Lightfoot notes that the consent decree addresses foot pursuits—when and how police may run after suspects—by saying that the independent monitor should wait until 2021, after enough data is collected, to decide whether to adopt a formal policy on that.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department report flagged the Chicago police department’s foot chase record as “reckless” and asked why it had a policy for vehicle pursuits, but not for foot pursuits. The DOJ report lists several instances of Chicago police officers chasing people “without a basis for believing the person had committed a serious crime,” and then injuring or shooting unarmed suspects while in pursuit. DOJ’s recommendation on this:

Develop, train and implement a foot pursuit policy that makes clear that foot pursuits are dangerous and that sets forth guidelines for foot pursuits that balance the objective of apprehending the suspect with the risk of potential injury to the officer, the public, and the suspect. The policy also should address unsafe foot pursuit tactics to ensure the risks of foot pursuits are not increased;

Lightfoot also is worried that the consent decree only prohibits police from putting suspects in chokeholds “if there is an intent to reduce the intake of air or put pressure on a person’s airway.” (This suggests a question: What other function is there for choking someone?)

“This standard of intent is untenable,” said Lightfoot. “Under this policy, an officer would simply deny an intention to cause harm after using a chokehold. The Chicago police department must be prohibited from using chokeholds, full stop.”

“Proactive, affirmative transparency”

The evidence of Chicago police violence against civilians, and minorities in particular, keeps expanding. The Invisible Institute recently updated andrelaunched its Citizens Police Data Project website with more comprehensive data on police complaints now dating back to 1967. Among their latest findings: Racial disparities in police use of force have increased over the last decade, even though Chicago’s black population has decreased. In fact, they found that of the five police districts with the highest rates of excessive force against African Americans, four of them are in predominantly white districts.

For Invisible Institute’s executive director Kalven, one of the best things he believes the Emanuel administration can do to improve police-community relations is to make all police misconduct files instantly available to the public. It took a 2014 court ruling, from Kalven’s lawsuit against the city, for these files to be formally declared public information. And yet civilians still have to go through the FOIA process to access it. The city could put all of these files on its website tomorrow. That’s another major reform missing from the consent decree, but Kalven is still pushing the city to do this.

“Just put all of the disciplinary information out there so that we as citizens can monitor the [consent decree] process and really be meaningfully engaged,” said Kalven. “That would be such an expression of good faith, to institute that kind of proactive, affirmative transparency.”

What’s also stopping that from happening is the police union, which has been fighting to block transparency. In fact, the union took the city to court for the right to destroy police misconduct files older than five years. The union lost, but it jammed up the process to make those files public for nearly two years. If there has been a positive spot in Emanuel’s police reform agenda it’s his willingness to stand up to the union. The mayor, in fact, worked “shoulder-to-shoulder” with police reform activists, said Kalven, in court against the union’s request to destroy older police misconduct files.  

Meanwhile, current police union president Kevin Graham told CityLab that he and Emanuel have not spoken since Graham became the leader of the local Fraternal Order of Police union chapter last year. Its prior president, Dean Angelo, did engage with Emanuel after the McDonald killing and for the Justice Department probe. Which may be why the union members voted him out. Graham, his successor, is reported to take a far harder line on police reforms than Angelo did.

“The only way this city will move forward is if we elect someone who takes seriously the rule of law,” said Graham. “Unfortunately, here in Chicago, we have bowed to various groups who say that all of the problems are with the police.”

Graham singled out the ACLU as one of those groups. “The ACLU is not a friend of the people of Chicago, because they have caused the increase in crime, in part,” he said. Although he did not mention them by name, Black Lives Matter and Black Youth Project 100 have also been instrumental in pressuring Emanuel to adopt certain police reforms, and some of their leaders were included in the consent decree process. They also successfully mobilized voters to remove former Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez from her office in 2016, for taking more than a year to charge police officer Van Dyke after he killed McDonald.

Van Dyke’s court trial began this week, and it could expose other ways that the Emanuel administration hushed the facts and initially protected McDonald from criminal punishment. With Emanuel no longer facing reelection, Kalven said he can use this as an opportunity to take a much bolder stance on police reform, regardless of the outcome of the Van Dyke trial.

“There are few incidents of police violence that we know as much about as we do the Laquan McDonald killing, and the subsequent institutional response,” said Kalven. “And yet the core narrative is still unstable. The trial is a critical part of that landscape, but it would be a mistake to read a guilty verdict as a demonstration that we are somehow healed as a society, or that we’ve addressed the underlying problems.”

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