But it was a comment by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was not aware that reporters were present, that received the most attention and got Emanuel in hot water.
In an exchange with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Emanuel summed up the sentiments of many politicians and police commanders in the room. He said a fear of being the next face on the 6 o’clock news had prompted officers in Chicago and across the country to become “fetal” and not risk engagements with the public that could become viral video sensations.
Emanuel said cellphone footage was leaving officers to be unfairly tried in the court of public opinion before a court proceeding. The former White House chief of staff implored Lynch, the administration’s new Justice Department chief, to back the nation’s police officers publicly before the next, inevitable cellphone video surfaces to cast aspersions on someone wearing a badge.
Emanuel’s remarks drew applause from the dozens of politicians and law enforcement officials in attendance at the Attorney General’s Summit on Violent Crime. The Justice Department told attendees that the meeting was closed to the press to encourage a frank exchange, but the mayor of D.C. listed the event as public, and a Washington Post reporter followed her entourage into the room and observed three hours of the closed-door meeting.
The “fetal” quote, however, has followed Emanuel back to Chicago, where the city is grappling with almost 400 homicides year to date.
Dean Angelo, president of Lodge 7 of the Fraternal Order of Police, told the Chicago Tribune that police officers were not standing down.
“They don’t stop policing. They’re a very resilient group,” Angelo said. “They’re out there working their buns off, and they’re looking for a fair shake. They go to work and positively impact people in their everyday lives.”
The mayor was pressed to explain the quote this week and did not back down, telling reporters on Monday that in addressing Lynch, he “tried to speak up for the good officers that are doing community policing that make up the men and women of the Chicago Police Department.”
After decades of declines, dozens of cities nationwide are recording double-digit increases in homicides this year. At the summit, FBI Director James Comey acknowledged he was searching for a pattern and could not rule out that a post-Ferguson, “YouTube effect” was having an impact on the psychology of policing.
While that effect doesn’t explain years of persistently high homicide rates in Chicago under Emanuel, his off-the-cuff description of police as “fetal” has stirred national debate.