CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel has struggled in recent months to maintain the trust of his city following public protests and calls for his resignation in the wake of fatal police shootings of young black men.
The embattled mayor faced renewed questions Thursday about whether he had known earlier than he had previously said that police accounts of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald conflicted with a dashboard-camera video of the 2014 incident.
Early in the day, a federal judge ordered the release of video footage in another case, from 2013, that shows police fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager. The city had long opposed the release, but reversed itself this week and asked a court to make the video public. It was released hours after the ruling.
By afternoon, Emanuel (D) faced the prospect of more protests in the city, beginning with some black ministers’ plans to boycott the mayor’s annual breakfast commemorating the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Friday. Also, a march is set to take place through Chicago’s financial district, along with a mock funeral procession through the South Side and more protests at Emanuel’s home.
“We are hurt, disappointed and angry,” Bishop Larry Trotter, senior pastor of Sweet Holy Spirit Church, said in a statement about the planned boycott. “The mayor has been friendly towards many ministers, but his administration has failed all Chicagoans.”
Even the White House seemed to offer tepid support Thursday for the president’s former chief of staff. Press secretary Josh Earnest praised Emanuel for taking “full responsibility for solving this problem” and noted that many communities are struggling with distrust of police and that he and President Obama had worked closely for years.
“But ultimately,” Earnest said, “it will be the voters of the city of Chicago — it’ll be up to them to decide whether or not the mayor has done enough to address this problem.”
The Chicago Tribune published a report Thursday suggesting that city attorneys and top aides to the mayor knew about discrepancies in the McDonald case months before Emanuel has said he learned about them. There is no evidence in recently released emails that the top aides talked directly to Emanuel about the details of the shooting. But the paper cited emails, interviews and City Hall calendars to show that the mayor’s aides, city lawyers and top police officials discussed video of the shooting in the months after it — a time when the mayor was facing a contentious election.
Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins, in an email, said that the mayor “routinely meets with the police superintendent on crime reduction strategies, and with the corporation counsel on a wide range of legal matters,” including lawsuits over Chicago’s pension reform law, and that the mayor’s office has released emails and documents on the matter. “The facts are clear, and anything else is nothing more than baseless innuendo,” Collins said.
In a letter last March, Jeffrey J. Neslund, an attorney for McDonald’s family, warned the city’s lawyers that he had seen the video and that it spelled trouble for the city.
“I submit the graphic dash cam video will have a powerful impact on any jury and the Chicago community as a whole,” Neslund said in the letter. “This case will undoubtedly bring a microscope of national attention to the shooting itself as well as the city’s pattern, practice and procedures in rubber-stamping fatal police shootings of African Americans as ‘justified.’ ”
There is no smoking gun in the emails, said Evan McKenzie, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “But what is the political appearance here? . . . A reasonable inference that he knew what was in the video and wanted to keep it secret until the election was over. And that is a very, very damaging thing.”
Emanuel has said that he did not learn that police accounts differed dramatically from the now-infamous video until it became public two months ago.
Asked Thursday how he could have been unaware of such stark differences for months, even as some of his top aides had known of the potential legal and political implications, Emanuel demurred. “The answer, which is consistent with, and also what I’ve said before, at that point, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. attorney and the state’s attorney are looking into it, and that’s exactly where it should be so they can get to the bottom of it,” he told reporters.
Thursday morning, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman ordered the release of video footage in another case that shows police fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager. Gettleman called the city “irresponsible” for fighting to keep the video under wraps for months, only to do an about-face this week and ask the court to make it public.
Top city attorney Stephen Patton said this week that the reversal was part of an effort “to be as transparent as possible” and to “find the right balance between the public’s interest in disclosure and the importance of protecting the integrity of investigations and the judicial process.”
The video shows the 2013 shooting death of 17-year-old Cedrick Chatman, who was suspected of car theft when he fled from police in the South Shore neighborhood.
In a central dispute in the ongoing wrongful-death suit, the city has said that Chatman turned and pointed “a dark object” at officers while fleeing, and the attorney for the officer involved said he and his partner “had reason to believe that the suspect was armed.” Chatman’s family said he did nothing to threaten the officers. The object turned out to be a black iPhone box.
The video released Thursday, taken from a police blue-light camera and two nearby surveillance cameras, appears to offer little in the way of answers. It captures the incident only from a distance, and the surveillance camera pans away from the scene at critical moments.
On Dec. 1, Emanuel announced the creation of a Task Force on Police Accountability to examine the city’s system of oversight and training for its police force. One of the group’s assignments: review Chicago’s decades-long policy opposing the public release of videos and other evidence relating to alleged police misconduct until investigations surrounding them are finished. The task force is scheduled to present recommendations for any changes by the end of March.
The public release in November of the dash-cam video showing McDonald being shot 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke has resulted in calls for the resignation of top officials in Chicago, including Emanuel, whose administration has struggled to quell the political upheaval that has grown louder since. Van Dyke faces a first-degree murder charge and has pleaded not guilty.
Meanwhile, Emanuel has said that he welcomes the Justice Department’s investigation of the Chicago police for civil rights violations, and he recently ordered a third-party review of the city’s law department. Last month, amid the ongoing uproar, the mayor also fired Chicago Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy, saying: “He has become an issue, rather than dealing with the issue, and a distraction.”