“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel famously said in November 2008. Then chief of staff to president-elect Barack Obama, Emanuel was referring to the nation’s financial crisis. “It’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Things that we had postponed for too long . . . are now immediate and must be dealt with.”
Now he’s mayor of Chicago, and in a crisis of his own making. Whether he’ll survive it remains to be seen, but his future darkens by the day.
The anger at Emanuel started building in the days leading up to the court-ordered release of the video showing the final seconds of Laquan McDonald’s life. The 17-year-old African-American was shot again and again by a white Chicago police officer, 16 times in all, on Pulaski Road one evening in October 2014. The fury at the mayor grew with the release of the sickening video last Tuesday, and has continued to mount despite Emanuel’s efforts to subdue it. There are reasonable suspicions about his role in suppressing the video as long as possible; they won’t be quelled by a promise of more police body cams. His firing yesterday of police superintendent Garry McCarthy has likewise failed to lower the heat.
In the midst of this crisis, Emanuel has discovered one of those “things that we had postponed for too long” that finally “must be dealt with.” Yesterday morning he announced the creation of a task force that will recommend reforms to the city’s oversight of police misconduct. The task force’s top duty will be examining the work of the Independent Police Review Authority, the city agency that investigates police-involved shootings and allegations of excessive force. The task force will make recommendations “to improve the quality, independence or timeliness of IPRA’s investigations,” Emanuel said.
Scrutinizing IPRA is essential. But the mayor should have begun that effort after he assumed office four and a half years ago, when it would have shown genuine concern, instead of one week after the release of the Laquan video, when it amounts to damage control.
Yesterday afternoon, Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan undercut Emanuel’s task force initiative with a letter to U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch, calling for a federal probe of the Chicago Police Department. Madigan noted “troubling questions” about investigations by IPRA of police shootings and alleged police misconduct—and, in a stinging affront to the mayor, said the probing of CPD and IPRA had to be done by others: “Chicago cannot move ahead without an outside, independent investigation.”
I wrote last week that Chicago police officers who shoot someone unjustifiably can expect to get away with it. The mayor doesn’t control what the state’s attorney’s office does (although he certainly influences it), but IPRA is his responsibility. The agency recommends whether officers should be disciplined or fired, but those are findings it rarely makes.
Ignoring the lack of discipline for police abuse is a tradition for Chicago mayors. The victims of police misconduct tend to be poor African-Americans with criminal records. They’re people who don’t matter much to a mayor, in other words. Cracking down on police misconduct, on the other hand, would mean running up against the Fraternal Order of Police—the middle-class, largely white, noisy police union.
Two years ago, Emanuel named Scott Ando, a career DEA agent, IPRA’s chief administrator. Under Ando, IPRA investigators have continued to find nearly all police shootings to have conformed with department policy.
The vast majority of witnesses to police shootings are police officers. They inevitably back each other up, but there often are contradictions in their stories—contradictions that IPRA investigators seem unwilling to explore.
I wrote about one such case in May. Seventeen-year-old Eric Tonson was shot in the neck in Austin on a summer evening in 2007 by one of two police officers. (Both fired at him, and it was never determined whose shot hit Tonson.) Tonson survived. The officers told an IPRA investigator that when they saw Tonson walking on a sidewalk that night, they suspected he had a gun because his jacket pocket was drooping and he was holding onto that side. When they approached to talk to him, he fled through a schoolyard. The officers cornered him in a dark alcove behind the school, at which time, they said, Tonson reached into his waistband and then extended his arm at the officers. They saw something shiny, and, fearing for their lives, opened fire.
It turned out, however, that Tonson was unarmed. The shiny object must have been his belt buckle, the officers said. There was no explanation for what accounted for the purported droopy pocket, or for why the teen would reach into his waistband and extend an arm at two officers. Tonson told the IPRA investigator he never did any such thing: one officer told him to put his hands in the air, and he complied, but then the other officer told him to get on the ground, and when he lowered his arms to do so, the first officer shot him. In the conclusion to her final report, the investigator ignored Tonson’s account altogether and found the shooting justified. His family sued, and the city settled the case for $99,000.
In January 2013, one of the two officers involved in the Tonson shooting, Kevin Fry, fatally shot 17-year-old Cedrick Chatman in South Shore. Chatman, who was fleeing on foot from an earlier carjacking, was carrying an iPhone box that Fry said he mistook for a gun. A lawsuit filed by Chatman’s mother is pending in federal court.
IPRA ruled the Chatman shooting justified. But a former IPRA investigator who worked on the case, Lorenzo Davis, says he thought the shooting was unjustified. Davis, a Chicago police commander before he began working for IPRA, was fired by Ando in July. Davis maintains he was fired because he resisted orders from Ando to reverse his findings that several shootings were unjustified. (IPRA denies that allegation.) Davis is suing the city for wrongful termination.
And consider another IPRA case, one that Alex Kotlowitz wrote about yesterday on the New Yorker’s website. On a May night in 2011, 19-year-old Calvin Cross was shot dead by police in West Pullman. Three officers later said that when they came upon Cross, they thought he might have drugs or a gun because he was fidgeting with something in his waistband. From their squad car, they ordered him to show his hands, but he ran instead. The officers claimed that when they chased Cross, he fired back at them, so they returned fire—45 rounds in all, five of which hit Cross.
Police said they found a gun on the scene that Cross purportedly carried—a Smith & Wesson revolver “so old and clogged with ‘dirt and grime’ that a State Police examination determined that it was inoperable,” Kotlowitz reported. “It had been manufactured in 1919. Moreover, all six bullets were still in the chamber. Investigators found no gun residue on Cross’s hands and no fingerprints on the gun. So, the natural question is: How could Calvin Cross have shot at the police?”
It was not a question the IPRA investigator bothered to answer. The shooting was ruled justified. The city settled the suit brought by Cross’s family for $2 million.
The time it takes to complete police shooting investigations is another IPRA problem. The Tonson investigation took more than five years. That was an anomaly, but the agency’s shooting investigations still often take 18 months or more. During this period, there’s an information blackout: the only thing IPRA will say about a case is that it’s pending. (I’ve heard this so often from the agency that I’ve come to think it’s what the “P” stands for in IPRA.)
Maybe the agency needs funding for more investigators. Its current budget is $8.4 million, and another couple million dollars would be a smart investment in fiscal terms alone if, in the long run, it helped the agency to change police culture in a way that reduced the $47 million the city pays annually in settlements and judgments in lawsuits against its officers. In the short run, however, a more aggressive IPRA might actually cost the city more, because findings that an officer was at fault would bolster suits against the city—a disincentive that perhaps has been another factor in the reluctance of mayors to strengthen the agency.
In Madigan’s letter to Attorney General Lynch, she referred to a few specific police shooting cases. One of them occurred in December 2013, when officer Marco Proano fired a dozen shots into a car filled with unarmed African-American teens on the far south side. Two of the teens were wounded. The car had been curbed for speeding, and Proano started shooting when it began backing up, although he wasn’t in its path.
In June, the Chicago Reporter published a dash-cam video of the shooting, which it obtained from retired juvenile court judge Andrew Berman. Berman said he gave the paper the video because he was so disturbed by Proano’s actions. “My first reaction was, if those are white kids in the car, there’s no way [he would] shoot,” he told the Reporter. In March the city settled a federal lawsuit on behalf of three of the teens for $360,000.
In 2011, Proano had fatally shot a 19-year-old at 80th and Ashland. IPRA ruled the shooting justified.
Two years after the 2013 shooting into the car, Proano is still on the force, albeit on desk duty, and, as Madigan observed in her letter, IPRA is still investigating that shooting. Yesterday I asked IPRA’s spokesperson, Larry Merritt, for an update on the investigation. “What’s taking so long?” I asked him in an e-mail. I also asked him if he could tell me when the investigation might be completed. He responded: “All I can tell you right now is that the case is pending.”
As is the mayor’s crisis.