Fault Lines
18 January 2019
rahm emanuel

Can You Teach an Incompetent Chicago Dog New Tricks?

March 10, 2017 (Fault Lines) — In his two terms as mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel’s revealed himself to have little ability and less principle. And nowhere is that easier to see than in his police department.

On Emanuel’s watch, CPD – never known for its humanitarian instincts – has morphed into an out-of-control monster. It’s now by far America’s most expensive PD in terms of misconduct lawsuits. According to the Chicago Reporter’s Settling for Misconduct database, CPD cost Chicago taxpayers a mindblowing $210 million just in civil-rights lawsuits between 2012 and 2015. That’s enough money to hire a thousand replacement Emanuels, and by the time his second term expires in 2019, Chicagoans will likely be out a half billion dollars because their mayor can’t keep his cops from behaving like savages.

Because police brutality and constitutional violations are so common in the Windy City, misconduct that’d raise a hellacious stink if it happened in redneck country sometimes barely makes a splash. Local reporters are spoilt for choice. For every state-sponsored rape on a dusty street in South Carolina, ten stories that’re just as outrageous, if not more so, have come out of Chicago.

There’s Officer Anthony Abbate, who was caught on video beating the shit out of a female bartender because he was mad and she got in the way. (Cost to taxpayers: $2.8 million.) Ronald Watts and Kallett Mohammed, who ran a troubled project on the South Side as their own personal fiefdom, extorting residents and shaking down dealers for cash and drugs. (Cost to taxpayers: at least $2.1 million so far, with more to come as tainted convictions are reviewed and more lawsuits filed.)

Then there’s Sgt. Jeff Truhlar’s cops, who punished a man who ran away from them after he blew through a stop sign by subduing him, taking away his inhaler and spraying it in the air in front of him as he had a lethal asthma attack. According to eyewitnesses, he died in handcuffs in the middle of the street with cops laughing at him. (Cost to taxpayers: a mere 1.5 million.[1])

Emanuel stood by as this and much worse happened and the institutions meant to fix the problem failed. In the Abbate and Watts cases, aggrieved parties (the beaten bartender; two officers who were outraged at the corruption) went to CPD’s civilian “oversight” bureau, the Independent Police Review Authority, and Internal Affairs in hopes of getting the offending cops dealt with. Instead, of course, they were dealt with.

The bartender, Karolina Obrycka, was the lucky one. IPRA merely buried her case, even though Obrycka, her manager and the bar’s owner all claimed Abbate and some other cops threatened to kill and/or falsely arrest them if they didn’t “lose” the video.

The whistleblowing cops, on the other hand, are mainly lucky to be alive. After they reported Watts and Mohammed, the FBI took over the investigation, but IA, which remained involved, allegedly leaked the details to the rest of the department. The other cops, seeing what the whistleblowers did as a violation of what Emanuel himself has called CPD’s ingrained “code of silence,” sent them to chase down dangerous felons on their own when the backup they were promised never arrived.

Emanuel’s policy of hiding behind his desk in an effort not to stain his mayor suit with actual reform work came to an end in 2015, when a state judge ordered the city to release video of Officer Jason Van Dyke emptying his firearm into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The killing happened over a year before the evidence emerged, and the city fought the release tooth and nail, giving rise to suspicions that Emanuel and/or his minions had known about the shooting and sat on the video.

Journalists filed requests for documents from the mayor’s office under the state Freedom of Information Act, and in a strategically timed dump on New Year’s Eve 2015, the city released 3,000 often heavily redacted emails. They confirmed that not only had there been a cover-up, but IPRA and the Cook County DA were involved. Rather than take action against Van Dyke or any of a number of cops who lied on his behalf, Emanuel’s office and DA Anita Alvarez‘ office were shown to have cooperated to suppress the video and manage the political fallout in the event of its release.

The resulting massive scandal swept Alvarez out of office. The IPRA – one of the city’s biggest jokes, an only nominally independent oversight board with a proven history of helping cops get away with crimes – underwent yet another cosmetic “overhaul,” something that happens once every couple of years.

Emanuel managed to hang on to his office by the tips of his fingers and some clever planning. First, he pinned the blame for his failure to act on the shooting on a top aide, CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy, whom he demonstratively fired in December 2015 together with IPRA chief Scott Ando. Second, he created the Police Accountability Task Force, whose mission was to devise a plan for police reform.

PATF was a lost cause from the beginning. Its handpicked Emanuelite staff released a report in April of last year that made some seriously anodyne “reform” recommendations, including but not limited to “violate black residents‘ rights less” and “better training.” It was also notable in that it put the blame for Chicago’s police woes on IPRA, the only agency not officially affiliated with City Hall. Things smelled even worse because PATF is chaired by Lori Lightfoot, who headed up IPRA during one of its previous scandal-ridden incarnations.

With all local efforts to “reform” CPD doomed to failure by the mayor’s eagerness to cover his own butt, Chicago residents were forced to pin their hopes on the feds, who began an investigation of CPD’s rights violations around the time Emanuel was firing McCarthy and Ando. When it comes to police reform, local governments typically object to what they see as heavy-handed, expensive federal interference in their own affairs.

But by January of this year, when Obama’s legacy DoJ released its own anodyne report on misconduct in the police department, Emanuel had become positively giddy at the prospect of the feds doing his job for him. (He may well have reasoned that no amount of DoJ interference could make him look more profligate and incompetent than he does now.)

This love affair with the feds has persisted into the Trump era, with Emanuel inviting Jeff Sessions to come in and take over gun prosecutions in an effort to drive down the city’s highest-in-the-nation homicide rate. But specifically when it comes to reforming CPD, the never credible idea that DoJ will fix things is now completely unbelievable.

Trump and Sessions are united in their opposition to federal reform efforts, seeing police misconduct as a strictly local issue. Emanuel agreed to negotiate a consent decree, a type of DoJ reform tool, in January, but it’s now doubtful whether those negotiations will ever be completed.

The cops smell the chum in the water, too. On March 7, CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson reverted changes to the department’s use-of-force policy that would’ve required cops to use deescalation techniques and less force during confrontations.

All this put Emanuel in a bit of a bind. Thanks to dogged nationwide reporting and the DoJ investigation, there’s a massive spotlight on CPD’s abuses. But without the feds to hold his hand, and in light of his history, nobody’s willing to believe he’ll do anything about it. He needed to make a lateral move, do something radical to restore faith in his abilities. And remarkably, for once in his life, he may have chosen… wisely.

Walter Katz is the former Independent Police Auditor of San Jose, CA. He’s also a previous Cross victim, and a man of unimpeachable honesty, integrity and commitment to reform. Emanuel has now hired him to be his “deputy chief of staff for public safety and chief liaison with CPD.”

emanuel katz

(Credit: Chicago Sun-Times)

That sounds pretty impressive, but titles are cheap in Chicago. (Just look at the IPRA or PATF.) Nobody doubts that Katz has the ability to make a positive contribution; the question is whether Emanuel will let him. Hiring him at all was an incredible burst of reform effort by the mayor’s standards, and that was the easy part! The real test will come when Katz makes recommendations that CPD and the police union don’t like.

Will Emanuel use this incredible new resource? Or will he revert to his apathetic, buck-passing instincts? Time will tell. But even in this age of perpetual disappointment on police reform, optimism dies hard. Maybe – just maybe – despite everything we know about them, Emanuel and Chicago really are ready to turn the corner and fix CPD.

[1] This was one of many multimillion-dollar lawsuits Chicago settled in 2016. As such, it isn’t reflected in the $210 million figure given above. $500 million by 2019 may actually be a conservative estimate.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Richard G. Kopf
    10 March 2017 at 4:13 pm - Reply

    David, please remember that it the mayor who once advised a president to “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Ain’t America great!

    All the best.


    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      10 March 2017 at 5:14 pm - Reply

      Your Honor,

      I’m so relieved that someone actually read all 1500 words of my interminable post that even what I now know about Mayor Emanuel can’t dampen my mood.

      All the best,