CHICAGO — It was strange to watch Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hands tremble behind the podium as he talked to reporters about his new task force aimed at improving accountability in a police department that a lot of Chicagoans don’t trust.
The mayor didn’t appear scared to face the press for the first time in nearly a week following the release of the horrific video showing white Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting a black teenager 16 times.
But he didn’t seem like himself, either.
Frankly, the fact that Emanuel had asked three former prosecutors, a former Chicago deputy police superintendent, a former public defender and a guy from Massachusetts how to fix his police department was completely out of character for our mayor.
For instance, when the Chicago Public Schools faced a billion-dollar budget deficit a few years back you didn’t hear Emanuel calling for a blue-ribbon panel of experts to come up with a financial fix.
No way. Our boss ordered his handpicked school board to layoff thousands of teachers and close 50 schools to fill the budget gap.
When the Red Line south branch started to grind to a halt, the mayor didn’t gather up a bunch of transportation geeks to figure out a construction strategy.
He just told his buddy, Chicago’s government Mr. Fix-it, Forrest Claypool, to get ‘er done in six months, or else.
And when it came time to fork over $540 million to shore up underfunded public employee pensions, Rahm didn’t round up a bunch of economist eggheads to give him advice.
Our mayor ordered up the biggest property tax hike in city history and ordered alderman to support it because he said they had a “moral obligation” to do so.
But on Tuesday when the mayor announced he created a task force on police accountability, the whole thing seemed odd, particularly for Emanuel, a guy who truly believes a good crisis should never go to waste.
Cynical reporters will tell you that the mayor is just stalling. Conspiracy theorists say Emanuel set the deadline for the task force’s report after the spring primary elections to protect vulnerable Democrats.
Right now, none of that matters. In fact, it's a distraction from what's really important.
Chicago has reached a tipping point on police misconduct, police brutality and wrongful prosecutions that have eroded trust in our police department.
A couple of the biggest reasons a lot of people don’t trust Chicago police is the department’s pervasive “thin-blue line” code of silence and set of rules that keep police misconduct complaints against officers secret unless the allegations are sustained.
Emanuel doesn’t need a group of law enforcement insiders to tell him how to fix that.
If the mayor really wants to start rebuilding trust in the police department, he must open the books on police misconduct in Chicago. That's the first step to changing the corrupt cover-up culture that a tiny collection of crooked, racist and abusive cops who think they’re above the law depend on to keep their badge, gun and publicly funded pension.
And there are plenty of things the mayor immediately can do to make things better, including:
• Releasing all reports related to completed police misconduct cases, union rules be damned.
Let the courts decide if the public has a right to know if a police officer has been accused of misconduct 18 times — as was the case with Van Dyke before he killed Laquan McDonald — whether the complaints are sustained or not.
That way regular folks, watchdog reporters and other good cops will know if they’re dealing with an officer that has a history of getting themselves into trouble.
• Calling on state lawmakers to follow the lead of other states — including Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio and Washington, that make all police disciplinary records public — and remove exemptions in Illinois Freedom of Information Act typically cited to block the release of that information.
• Demanding all officers found guilty of breaking Rule 14 of the Police Department’s disciplinary code, a little known provision that calls for officers who “make false reports, written or oral” get fired.
People who know about these things will tell you that's particularly important because a police department that systematically harbors liars can't be trusted.
The recently fired McCarthy told me in 2013 that his policy is “termination” for cops who get caught lying during an official investigation.
But the truth is that doesn’t happen very often in Chicago.
McCarthy blamed the department’s “convoluted” disciplinary process — the Independent Police Review Authority recommends punishments, and then the police superintendent files charges with the police board, which makes the final decision — for not doling out consistent punishment that sends a message to the rank-and-file that lying won’t be tolerated.
Frankly, McCarthy told me back then he didn’t have the authority to change any of that.
The Emanuel administration has flat out ignored the problem during his entire time in office.
• Taking some of the first advice that a source told me McCarthy offered up to the mayor more than four years ago.
According to that source, McCarthy asked the mayor to have the police department accessed and accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a joint effort of law enforcement’s major executive associations that aims to get police departments in compliance with an “established set of professional standards.”
But Emanuel wasn’t willing to foot the bill, the source said.
“The bitter irony is … [Emanuel] had a top guy who knew how to fix some of these problems and didn’t give him the latitude to get national accreditation that would give [the city] backing to fix the problems,” the source said.
• It's time for Emanuel to realize the police department's problem is his problem, and only his problem. There's no one else to wear the jacket. Not McCarthy. Not former Mayor Daley, or anyone else.
Remember, Mr. Mayor, it wasn’t so long ago that your administration attempted to have part of federal jury’s ruling that stated a Police Department code of silence exists taken off the books.
The jury found that the code of silence emboldened former police officer Anthony Abbate, who conspired with other officers under the cover of law to cover up the drunken, videotaped beating he gave a female bartender in 2007.
U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve refused. She ruled the verdict would stand as a matter of principle that has “ramifications for society” and “social value to the judicial system and the public at large.”
Despite that ruling, Emanuel never moved to lift the veil of secrecy that protects officers accused of misconduct from facing the kind of public scrutiny that might make them think twice before violating the public’s trust.
It took a judge brave enough to order the release of a horrifying video to force the mayor's hand.
And now that we've watched the shooting death of McDonald, there’s no need for the mayor to rely on the recommendations of a blue-ribbon committee to bring real changes to the culture that has allowed a small percentage of crooked cops to taint our Police Department’s reputation for too long.
Whatever the task force recommends won't provide the mayor any political cover for not following though on creating a more open, transparent police department worthy of the city's trust.
What's at stake is Emanuel's political future.
And what he does or doesn't do to rebuild the public trust in the Chicago Police Department will be his legacy.
We’ve seen Emanuel use all his political might to push through major policy decisions that he believed were necessary even if they weren’t popular.
Right now, people are clamoring in the streets for a boss willing to stand up and do what’s right because it’s his moral obligation to Chicagoans, to all of us.
Don’t let this crisis go to waste, Mr. Mayor.
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