CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ducked questions Thursday about whether he knew far earlier than he has previously disclosed about differences between police accounts of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and what a dash-cam video of the 2014 incident actually shows.
A Chicago Tribune report on Thursday, citing emails, interviews and official city calendars, suggested that the mayor’s aides and attorneys at city hall knew of the discrepancies in the case as early as December 2014 — months before Emanuel said he was fully briefed about the case. Emanuel, who was fighting for re-election at the time, has said he had not been aware that police reports about the shooting differed so dramatically from the now-infamous video until long after the incident. The city settled with McDonald’s family last spring.
Asked at a press conference Thursday how he could have been unaware for months about the contradictions between police reports and the video in the high-profile case, even as some of his closest advisers 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 said.
The public release of the dash-cam video in the case last November, which shows 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 charges of first-degree murder and has pleaded not guilty.
Thursday’s news came as a federal judge in Chicago ordered the release of video footage in another case that shows police fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager.
U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman called the city “irresponsible” for fighting to keep the video under wraps for so long. “I went to a lot of trouble to decide this issue, and then I get this motion last night saying that ‘this is the age of enlightenment with the city and we’re going to be transparent’,” Gettleman said.
After months of opposing the release of the video in the 2013 shooting death of 17-year-old Cedrick Chatman, city officials on Wednesday did an abrupt about-face, asking the judge to rescind a protective order and make public the video, which shows a white officer fatally shooting the teenager as he fled from police in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. Chatman had been suspected of car theft.
The city had insisted previously that the video should remain under seal while a wrongful-death suit in the case went forward. But Chicago officials, who have faced withering criticism in recent months, said this week that their reversal was part of an effort “to be as transparent as possible.” The video was released hours after Gettleman’s order Thursday.
A separate video, released in December, showed police shooting 25-year-old Ronald Johnson multiple times in the back in October 2014 as he fled on foot. Police initially said Johnson had turned and pointed a gun at officers as he ran, prompting Officer George Hernandez to fire. Johnson’s family has denied he was carrying a gun, instead suggesting that a gun was planted on his body. Hernandez was not charged.
The case of Cedrick Chatman, 17, is particularly noteworthy in Chicago because his 2013 death was ruled as justified by the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the embattled agency criticized as performing toothless investigations of police misconduct cases. Since 2007, only two Chicago police officers involved in the shootings of civilians have been disciplined under its authority. In September, IPRA investigator Lorenzo Davis said he was fired after refusing to change findings in three police shootings that showed officers were liable for wrongdoing.
One of those was the Chatman case. At the time, Davis said officer Kevin Fry was not justified in shooting the teenager and refused to sign a report that arrived at the opposite conclusion. “If Officer Fry believed his life was in danger, then his fear was unreasonable. (He) should not have taken this young man’s life,” he told CNN. Andy Hale, a lawyer representing Fry, said in a statement provided to The Washington Post that “these videos will demonstrate the facts in this incident are clear” and that Fry and his partner “had reason to believe that the suspect was armed.”
The Emanuel administration’s long-running fight to keep the video under wraps came to an end this week. Steve Patton, the city’s top attorney, said in a statement that the city “is working 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 city has long said that its policy for withholding videos is to ensure fairness should there be a trial. Patton said the policy “needs to be updated.”
Last month, 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 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.
According to data compiled by the Invisible Institute, a Chicago watchdog group, the officer who shot Chatman has had 30 civilian complaints of misconduct filed against him, including 12 involving excessive use of force. He remains on active duty in the department.
Chatman family attorney Brian Coffman told The Post that the Chatman shooting represents “a cover-up from the very start, from the false police report to the IPRA investigation to the city of Chicago itself…. Everyone is following up as if nothing happened, and that’s the problem. There is no accountability anymore from any level for these types of matters. No one is being disciplined anymore.”
“They let these guys go out there like it’s the O.K. Corral and start shooting and there are no consequences for their actions,” he added.
The video footage in the Chatman case comes from three sources: a police blue light camera and two nearby surveillance cameras. Chatman was killed during a foot chase after fleeing from a silver Dodge Charger that police said had been involved in a carjacking. His family says he was unarmed and feared for his life after officers jumped out of their unmarked police car with their guns drawn. The city has said that Chatman turned and pointed “a dark object” at officers while fleeing. The object turned out to be a black iPhone box.
Since last fall’s release of a dash-cam video showing the shooting of McDonald, which led to a wave of public protests and a federal civil rights investigation of Chicago’s police department, Emanuel has vowed to reform the agency that investigates police misconduct. Last month, amid the ongoing uproar, the mayor also fired Chicago’s police superintendent, Garry F. McCarthy, saying, “He has become an issue, rather than dealing with the issue, and a distraction.”
More protests are planned for Friday, beginning with a morning boycott by nearly 60 ministers of the mayor’s annual breakfast with local pastors to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. A march also is set to take place, heading through the city’s downtown financial district to Emanuel’s home on the North Side.
This story has been updated.