Hundreds of potential jurors have put their lives on hold until at least next week as Chicago steels itself for the trial of Jason Van Dyke. He’s the police officer charged with first-degree murder in the shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s stunning announcement Tuesday pre-empted the spectacle of a parallel trial outside the courtroom. With Emanuel officially not running for re-election, the 12 remaining candidates lost the chance to remind voters — day after day after day — of how badly the mayor stumbled in response to the shooting.
Emanuel never really regained his footing. McDonald was killed on Oct. 20, 2014, as Emanuel prepared to run for a second term. Only after he’d been re-elected did the public learn details of the shooting — 16 shots, several of them fired after McDonald had collapsed in the road — and its mishandling by City Hall and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
Police officers closed ranks around Van Dyke. He remained on the payroll, on desk duty, for 13 months, with disciplinary proceedings on hold while the criminal investigation dragged on. City attorneys negotiated a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family — even before a lawsuit was filed — and fought to withhold a damning police video until a judge ordered its release.
Struggling to contain the damage, Emanuel kept trying out narratives. First he said it was all about “one individual,” as if the criminal prosecution of a single cop could set things right. Later he acknowledged systemic problems in the Police Department and named a task force to propose reforms. He fiercely resisted intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice, then embraced it under public pressure. When the DOJ changed hands, he tried to walk away from his promise to submit to federal oversight of policing in Chicago. He joined Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan at the bargaining table only after she sued him.
In short, Emanuel’s words and actions were calibrated and recalibrated, based on political winds. In that way he was no different — no better — than previous mayors who could have reformed the Chicago Police Department, but ducked.
Chicago has a notoriously poor record for dealing with police misconduct. For decades, prosecutors and police supervisors looked the other way as Cmdr. Jon Burge and his crew tortured confessions out of suspects. Lesser transgressions, from unprofessional behavior to unnecessary force, were rarely punished. A dysfunctional disciplinary process almost never found wrongdoing by an officer, feeding a culture of impunity in the department.
Periodic scandals brought calls for reform, but the political will always evaporated.
This time can be different.
Van Dyke’s trial is likely to bring those failures front and center again, just as negotiations on the consent decree are wrapping up.
Groups demanding reforms — including the American Civil Liberties Union and Black Lives Matter — say a draft measure doesn’t go far enough. The Fraternal Order of Police wants no part of a consent decree, calling it part of a “war on police” that will only worsen the out-of-control street violence.
It’s a tricky nexus for a third-term wannabe who can’t risk alienating those dueling constituencies. But for a lame duck mayor who wants to leave a better city than the one he inherited, those considerations fall away. With no election to worry about, Emanuel can think instead about his place in history. He can agree to changes that will restore trust between police and citizens and set Chicago on the path to safe and lawful policing at last.
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September 5, 2018 at 06:03PM