BY YANA KUNICHOFF and DARRYL HOLLIDAY
It’s the year of police chief firings, and the latest official to fall is Chicago superintendent Garry McCarthy, who was summarily dismissed on Tuesday following the withholding and eventual release of dashcam footage of a police shooting that contradicted officials’ accounts of the altercation. But McCarthy is not the only one potentially implicated in what many in Chicago have called a cover-up in the shooting of Laquan McDonald.
McCarthy had been an embattled superintendent even before the release of the video, facing backlash over a series of violent summers, marked most recently by the shooting death of nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee. But as the McDonald story unfolded, McCarthy’s name wasn’t the only one on the lips of protesters upset at a clear lack of transparency and honesty. Both Rahm Emanuel, the city’s mayor, and Anita Alvarez, the state’s attorney responsible for criminally prosecuting police officers, have come under fire for their roles, in a city infamous for corruption and police misconduct.
McCarthy’s departure comes after the firing of Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson in March and the firing of Baltimore police chief Anthony Batts in July. All three cities have been the site of protests and calls for police accountability following fatal police-involved shootings since August 2014, but as leader of the second largest police force in the nation – and the top cop of the third largest city in the US – McCarthy stands out as a warning to city officials in Chicago.
The turning point for the superintendent came on 24 November when the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting was released to the public, one week before McCarthy was fired by Emanuel. At a press conference that evening, McCarthy stood alongside Emanuel in defense of his department’s decision not to press charges against the officer involved until the day before the video’s release.
Much of the country watched in shock that day as officer Jason Van Dyke unloaded 16 bullets into 17-year-old Laquan. In video obtained from a police dashcam on the scene, two Chicago police officers can be seen trailing Laquan as he walks unsteadily away from a line of patrol cars. The video shows the initial shots that topple Laquan – and then his body taking the impact of the dozen shots that followed.
The images set off protests across the city as hundreds of people blocked major streets and shopping areas in downtown Chicago across several days, including Black Friday. Playing no small part in the outrage was what many saw as an attempted cover-up in the case: the initial police press release made no mention of the 16 shots – instead choosing to preemptively criminalize him – and the civil settlement between Laquan’s family and the city was contingent on their not releasing the video. Questions over the department’s handling of the case in its early hours still linger.
At the center of complaints about Alvarez is that her “tough on crime” prosecutorial approach translates in practice to throwing the book at petty offenders while letting cases against police officers accused of deadly shootings linger with inaction. The Chicago Tribune reported that she had the McDonald video within two weeks of his death but took an additional 400 days to bring charges against the teen’s killer.
She’s up for reelection for a third term in March but has been hemorrhaging public support since the case broke. Democratic stalwart Luis Gutierrez announced on Tuesday that he would no longer endorse her. A series of news editorials simultaneously followed, alongside political pressure from Chicago’s Black Caucus and heavy-hitters like Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle.
“I’ve had no confidence in [Alvarez’s] leadership for a very long time,” Preckwinkle, who is backing her former chief of staff, Kim Foxx, over Alvarez in the 15 March Democratic primary election, told reporters on Monday. “I think the way she has run the office is disgraceful.”
While the city’s largely young, black activist groups have pressed for accountability and resignations for months, the Chicago Tribune wondered aloud whether Emanuel would be mayor at all had the Laquan McDonald video been released following his death in October 2014 – six months before Emanuel won an election against longtime West Side political player Chuy Garcia with critical help from black voters.
Chicagoans Kenneth Wright and Debora Samuels sound off on McCarthy’s firing in the city’s Archer Heights neighborhood, where Laquan McDonald was shot and killed.
Emanuel, meanwhile, has rapidly rolled out police accountability-related initiatives since 24 November. Along with firing McCarthy, he announced an expansion of the department’s body camera pilot program on Sunday and the creation of a clout-heavy taskforce on police accountability that was called into question within hours of its introduction.
A bandage for Chicago’s problems?
Emanuel’s taskforce wouldn’t be the first time the creation of a new agency or group has been offered as the bandage on Chicago’s police problems. The Independent Police Review Authority, which currently investigates and suggests action on police shootings and other misconduct, was created in 2007 to take over misconduct reviews for the Office for Professional Standards, an internal agency deemed largely ineffective by critics.
But the birth of IPRA failed to create the promised sea change in accountability and the Laquan McDonald shooting is seen as only the latest iteration of its failure. The agency sustains complaints against police officers at around 3% and has only twice recommended an officer involved in a shooting be fired – despite Chicago police having fatally shot 70 people over a five-year span, topping departments in the largest US cities. More broadly, in terms of concrete criminal charges, the police officer accused of killing Laquan was the first officer in 35 years to be charged with first-degree murder.
Groups on the ground – particularly Black Youth Project 100, a local organization under the Black Lives Matter mantle – see structural changes in leadership as one of their key demands. But if Ferguson and Baltimore are any indication, it might be what they do next that matters most. It took months of protest in Ferguson to bring down a Justice Department investigation into racial bias in the police department, and the firing of Baltimore’s police chief took place less than a year after the city was brought to a standstill by anger at the death of Freddie Gray.
How much outrage remains in Chicago – and where it will be directed – could hit the headlines sooner rather than later. The mother of another police shooting victim, Ronald Johnson, killed on 12 October 2014, four days before Laquan, filed a motion with a county judge in August to have the video of her son’s shooting made public.
Control of the CPD now falls to officer John Escalante, a 29-year veteran of the department who took over for McCarthy’s right-hand man, former first deputy superintendent Alfonza Wysinger, in October after the department’s highest-ranking black officer (and next in line for McCarthy’s job) stepped down. With at least one federal investigation under way and mounting calls for reform on all sides, Escalante is in the unenviable position of keeping clean in a system that appears more sullied each day.
This report was published in collaboration with The Guardian. Additional reporting by La Risa Lynch, Martin Macias, Tatiana Franklin, Ronald Reese and Monzell McKnight.