Was there a cover-up at the highest office in Chicago?
That is among the questions swirling around Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a video showing the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald:
What did the mayor know, and when did he know it?
It took 13 months for the video to be made public. The police dashcam video shows the teen walking down the road and veering away from police before being riddled with bullets, with most shots coming as he lay limp on the pavement. The video contradicts what police said occurred: that McDonald had lunged at officers.
As recently as November 23, a day before the video’s release, the mayor said he had not seen it. “Any descriptions I’ve read of this incident, to any person, regardless if you’re the mayor or just an individual, it would shock you,” he said in a conference call with ministers and community leaders, according to the Chicago Tribune.
For more than a year after the October 20, 2014, shooting of McDonald, the mayor and the city’s attorneys opposed the video’s release. It appears the mayor’s first public comments on the McDonald case were in April of this year, when it became known the city was giving McDonald’s family $5 million. At that time, the mayor said the video couldn’t be released because police and the FBI were withholding it as “central to their investigation.”
Critics are asking how the mayor could agree to a $5 million settlement with the family — which had not brought a lawsuit — without first reviewing the video? And what about the city council?
Emanuel said Wednesday that he has no plans to resign. He has repeatedly denied he had anything to do with withholding the video. In a Wednesday breakfast put on by Politico, he was feisty and combative, showing little patience under heated questioning.
He rejected characterizations that he’s been hiding from the fallout of the McDonald shooting. “I don’t think there’s anything about what I’ve done about hiding,” he said. “I’ve taken responsibility, and I’ll continue to take responsibility.”
Why didn’t he watch the video sooner? “If I would have watched it, voters like you would say, ‘If you get to see it, how come the public doesn’t get to see it?’ “
His comments have done little to quell criticism. His role is being questioned by city residents, preachers, grass-roots organizers and some of the most powerful activists in the nation.
Filmmaker Spike Lee made it clear he believes a cover-up occurred at the highest levels.
“It has to be,” Lee told CNN’s Don Lemon. “This is like some Watergate stuff.”
“A lot of questions have to be answered,” Lee said. “Who made the decision why this tape was held so long? And who saw the tape?”
He expressed dismay over the timing of the charges brought against Officer Jason Van Dyke. He was charged with first-degree murder in McDonald’s death just hours before the video’s release. Said Lee: “Shenanigans to me.”
Emanuel fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy on Tuesday and said a panel of “five respected Chicagoans” would examine the police department for the next four months and make recommendations on policy changes.
That’s not good enough, Lee said. “Top to bottom, they got to do something in Chicago.”
CNN commentator Van Jones said simply, “Right now, the reality is we have a major American city in full crisis, a cloud over a mayor and the investigation has to include him.”
University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman played an instrumental role in getting a judge to order release of the McDonald video, working with journalist Brandon Smith through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The mayor, Futterman said, is following a familiar script in Chicago politics and police scandals: Heads roll, a blue-ribbon panel investigates and then nothing changes.
“This is a real test for the mayor now. He has failed the test when it comes to police accountability, but right now is one of these political moments,” Futterman told CNN. “He has to think about what his legacy is and what he wants his legacy to be: Does he want to be known possibly as the person who helped to change police in Chicago and bring in real police reform?”
Police shootings in Chicago average almost one a week, Futterman said, and nearly 75% of the victims are black. The code of silence among police, he said, is all too familiar. Rarely is an officer charged.
The case against Van Dyke marks the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years. In 1980, a 51-year-old mentally ill black man was beaten to death for not putting out a cigarette on the El train. The autopsy showed he had suffered 15 broken bones. Two police officers were convicted of involuntary manslaughter; charges against a third officer were dismissed.
Futterman said he received a confidential call months ago from a member within law enforcement who had seen the McDonald dashcam video. “They’re going to bury this,” Futterman said he was told.
It is for that reason many people want the mayor gone, saying his legacy has already been tarnished. “You’ve got to look at it like this. This is the mayor’s city. He is the CEO. If this is a corporation, he would be fired,” said community activist Ja’Mal Green.
“As residents of Chicago, we are the stockholders and we are definitely calling on new leadership and accountability. That doesn’t begin or end with a superintendent of police or a beat cop. It starts with a mayor who is desperate to keep in power and a city council that is doing his bidding.”
Added the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Chicago activist and senior pastor at The Faith Community of Saint Sabina, “There has to be a special prosecutor who comes in and goes back to the day that Laquan was killed and says, ‘Who knew about it? Who covered it up? Who didn’t speak about it? Who tried to push it under the rug? Who held this up?’
“Everybody has to be subpoenaed — everyone on down from the mayor to the cop on the scene to the chief on 35th Street at police headquarters.”
Bernard Harcourt, a professor at Columbia University who penned an op-ed in The New York Times headlined Cover-Up in Chicago, told CNN: “They did everything they could at the highest levels to just quash this police dashcam video.
“They knew that the minute we would see that video heads would roll and all hell would break loose.”
Many said the shooting exemplifies why there’s so much distrust between the African-American community and police. “We’re talking about a police department that keeps talking about, ‘The community’s got to come forward, the community has got to talk’ ” when they have information on a crime, said Pfleger.
“For 13 months, nobody in the police department did. None of the officers on the scene did. What about the supervisors? What about supervisors over them? What about the police commander?”
How can the community trust the police, Pfleger asked, when the body politic is sick?
Lee expressed a similar sentiment. “It’s very hard for people in the community to take the olive branch when they see Laquan shot,” he said. “They shot him like he was a dog.”
He added, “That tape hurts every single police department in America, especially where the gap is widening between the community and the police. That’s bigger than Chicago.”
The filmmaker’s new movie, “Chi-Raq,” releases on Friday and explores the gun violence that has wreaked havoc across Chicago. He said the black community must also address the rampant killings “in a lot of our neighborhoods.”
“We got to work on our own house,” he said. “You know, young brothers are killing themselves. That’s a fact.”
He said he met with the mayor in late May and Emanuel objected to the title of his movie. “The hell that he was giving me about the title of the movie,” Lee said.
It miffs him in retrospect, because the mayor should have been more concerned about his streets.
The mayor has been famously quoted as saying, “You never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Where this crisis leads is anyone’s guess. But the mayor may soon experience déjà vu. A judge is expected to rule next week on whether video from another police killing in October 2014 will be released.