Mayor Emanuel and police superintendent Garry McCarthy at a press conference yesterday afternoon. Credit: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

It’s hard to put a positive spin on the release of a video showing a white Chicago police officer needlessly snuffing out the life of a black teen, but Mayor Emanuel did his best Tuesday afternoon. ​​”This episode can be a moment of understanding and learning,” ​the mayor said at a press conference at police headquarters​.​

​He himself has a lot to learn. ​

​You ​may recall ​the mayor sounding an alarm last month about policing in Chicago and throughout the nation. ​​​​At a summit of mayors and law enforcement leaders in Washington​, Emanuel ​called attention ​not ​to the unjustified harm that ​​some officers were doing to civilians, as revealed by numerous videos, ​but to the harm ​​videos were doing to policing​. 

Officers were shrinking from their duties, the mayor asserted, for fear that a video might portray them badly. ​​​”We have allowed our police department to get fetal, and it is having a direct ​consequence,” Emanuel said. ​​”They have pulled back from the ability to interdict . . . they don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.”

That the mayor would focus on police becoming “fetal” was especially remarkable given that​ ​he was well aware, when he made those comments, ​of the dashboard-camera video showing the final moments of Laquan McDonald’s ​brief ​life—a life ended by officer Jason Van Dyke on an evening in October 2014. McDonald, 17, was carrying a small knife, but in the video he appears to be walking away from police. Van Dyke shot him again and again and again​, 16 times in all, the final bullets fired when McDonald lay limp on Pulaski Road—in nearly a fetal position.

A judge last Thursday ordered the video released within a week. By that time, Emanuel knew better than to talk about how videos were making police fetal. “​Police officers are entrusted to uphold the law, and to provide safety to our residents,” he said in a statement. “In this case, unfortunately, it appears an officer violated that trust at every level.” He hoped prosecutors would finish their investigation soon “so Chicago can begin to heal.” On Monday he called the shooting “profoundly hideous,” and said “one individual needs to be held accountable.”

Yesterday the Cook County state’s attorney’s office charged Van Dyke with murder; he’s in jail without a bond. The video was released last night. 

The first thing the mayor needs to learn from McDonald’s death is that holding one individual accountable isn’t in any way sufficient. This shooting was especially “hideous,” but Chicago has a systemic problem, which is that police officers who shoot someone unjustifiably can expect to get away with it. It’s not a problem unique to Chicago, and it’s not new, but there’s no evidence that the city has made any progress toward solving it in Emanuel’s four and a half years as mayor. The charging of Van Dyke is the exception that proves the rule. He was charged because the shooting was particularly egregious, because some of it was caught on video, and because of a rapidly shifting public attitude toward such shootings.

The second thing the mayor ought to learn is that Chicago needs more than healing. The city needs vigorous investigations of police shootings by the Independent Police Review Authority. If the mayor wanted to point out fetal behavior, he could have pointed at IPRA.

IPRA’s predecessor, the Office of Professional Standards, was a unit of the police department. In 2007, ​the Tribune reported that less than 1 percent of the more than 200 police shootings in the previous decade reviewed by OPS had been ruled unjustified. This record led some Chicagoans to believe “that officers can shoot people with impunity,” the Trib said.

After two barroom beatings by police were captured on video that year, Mayor Richard M. Daley created IPRA, an agency supposedly independent of the police department. But like OPS, it’s been mostly curled up harmlessly when it comes to police misconduct. I reported in June that for the first time in its history, IPRA was recommending that a police officer involved in a shooting be fired. The officer, Francisco Perez, had fired 16 times into the wrong car after a drive-by shooting on Ashland. The episode was captured on video. IPRA had investigated more than 230 police shootings in its history at that point, had found only a handful to have been unjustified, and had never recommended more than a 20-day suspension. (IPRA has since recommended that a second officer, Dante Servin, be fired.)

One reason police shootings are almost always deemed justified by IPRA is that the main witnesses, and often the only ones, are the shooter and his fellow officers. The night McDonald was shot, Pat Camden, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, told reporters that McDonald lunged at officers with a knife, leaving them “no choice at that point but to defend themselves.” Where did Camden get that story?

At least five other officers were on the scene when Van Dyke unloaded. None of them fired a shot. All of them likely were interviewed by an IPRA investigator shortly after the shooting. It’ll be interesting to learn whether they reported what the video seems to show—that there was no need for Van Dyke to shoot—or whether they backed up their fellow officer by insisting that McDonald posed an imminent threat to them. But it may be years before the public finds out what they said, because IPRA ​suspends its investigations when a criminal charge is lodged (such as the murder charge against Van Dyke), and it doesn’t release information from an investigation while it’s “pending.”

Another thing Emanuel should seek to learn is how rigorously IPRA’s investigators interview police witnesses during their investigations of police shootings. In my review of interviews of police witnesses by IPRA in a couple of investigations, I’ve been struck by how feeble the questioning has been.

The mayor also ought to learn what transparency really means when it comes to police shootings, and how far IPRA falls short of it. When IPRA completes an investigation of a shooting by an officer, it surreptitiously publishes its summary and finding on its website. To locate a particular summary, one must know the year the case originated, navigate through three headings to a list of log numbers, and hunt through the summaries associated with the log numbers for a case that seems, from the date and address, to be the right one. Officers are identified only as “Officer A”, “Officer B”, “Officer C”, etc. A less transparent system would be hard to devise. It’s yet another way in which police officers, and IPRA itself, are shielded from scrutiny. 

And the mayor ought to learn why his police department abandoned the Force Analysis Panel that was created in 2009, at the urging of Ilana Rosenzweig, IPRA’s first chief administrator. (Rosenzweig left Chicago in 2013.) FAP was designed to help officers learn how to avoid unnecessarily putting themselves in jeopardy, in ways that seem to make shooting a civilian their only recourse. Police officials stopped holding FAP meetings in 2012. 
Yes, this can be a time of understanding and learning, but Emanuel needs to lead by example. He’s done no leading on this matter so far. He has to learn, and then he has to respond with concrete reforms designed to fix a systemic problem.