Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stands at the center of a crisis that threatens his administration, his political viability and his legacy.
Revelations about the city's handling of the 2014 fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald have provoked charges of a cover-up. A rising chorus is calling for the mayor's resignation. The collapse of public confidence is such that his every act and utterance is interpreted in the most negative possible light. And steps he has taken thus far to address the situation — firing the police superintendent and the head of the agency that investigates police shootings, appointing a task force to recommend reforms, embracing federal oversight of the Chicago Police Department and making an impassioned mea culpa speech to the Chicago City Council — have done little to quell public outrage.
Can the mayor rebound, restore a measure of public confidence and effectively address the institutional conditions that enable and shield police misconduct? Speaking as a journalist who has reported extensively on police abuse and impunity in Chicago, repeatedly sued the CPD under the Freedom of Information Act and played a role in bringing the McDonald case to light, I hope the mayor can rise to the challenge.
In 2008, in the midst of the cascading collapse of financial institutions, Emanuel, then President Barack Obama's chief of staff, famously remarked, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."
Less often quoted is the second part of that remark: The reason you don't want to waste a crisis, he said, is that it presents "the opportunity for us to do things you could not before."
What we are confronting in Chicago are systemic conditions that have long existed. The institutional responses to the killing of Laquan McDonald — the operation of the code of silence, protracted investigation as a form of cover-up, the use of settlements to avoid public and judicial scrutiny, etc. — are not departures from the norm. They are the norm.
The Emanuel administration did not create the dysfunctional culture within the CPD. But having inherited it, the administration accommodated itself to that culture and defended it, culminating in its deplorable handling of the McDonald case. It has a lot to answer for. Yet the political reality remains that, in the absence of a galvanizing crisis, it would have required extraordinary leadership to take on these deep pathologies.
Now the mayor's political survival hinges on making the most of the opportunity "to do things you could not do before" created by the crisis that has engulfed his administration.
In his speech to the City Council on Wednesday, he described this crisis as "a defining moment on the issues of crime and policing — and the even larger issues of truth, justice and race." He admitted that there is a code of silence within the Police Department that must be addressed. Most important, he acknowledged the reality of residents of the city who have reason to distrust the police, and he sounded the theme that police accountability is essential to effective law enforcement.
The mayor's description of deep, systemic problems within the CPD is in sharp contrast to his statement on Nov. 23 that only "one individual needs to be held accountable" in the Laquan McDonald case, Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot him. And Emanuel's acknowledgment of the code of silence directly contradicts the arguments by city lawyers who sought unsuccessfully in 2012 to have a federal judge vacate a jury verdict that included the finding that a code of silence exists within the CPD.
Only through his actions in coming days can the mayor give full credence to his words and demonstrate that he has truly broken with the past. The public and press must demand on a daily basis that he live up to those words. At the same time, it is important to recognize that we are all implicated in these conditions. The problems do not exist apart from us — from a press too often satisfied to publish the police blotter, from a passive City Council, from a citizenry conditioned to tolerate the intolerable.
We thus find ourselves in Chicago in the early stages of something akin to a truth and reconciliation process. A necessary condition for realizing this historic opportunity is public acknowledgment of the realities. Mayor Emanuel's challenge is to facilitate such an accounting and at the same time to withstand public outrage at what is revealed.
While federal intervention is welcome, it is important that it not pre-empt this unfolding political and social dynamic. For what is ultimately at stake at this pivotal moment in our history is a precious opportunity to progress from a society that tolerates apartheid justice toward one that guarantees equal treatment under the law.