CHICAGO — Why didn’t Mayor Rahm Emanuel push to eliminate “sacred cow” provisions in the police union contract that allow a code of silence to exist in the Chicago Police Department when the city was at the bargaining table?
After giving an emotional speech at City Hall on Wednesday, Emanuel looked tired and battered when he said, calmly with unfamiliar sincerity, that he wasn’t going to answer that question.
“While I don’t remember the past on that, let me say something going forward,” the mayor said.
An attempt was made to nudge the mayor to remember why he didn’t follow the advice of former police Supt. Garry McCarthy to make sweeping changes to the police discipline system during union contract negotiations.
The hope was the mayor might explain why he chose instead to accept the contract negotiation strategy of city attorney Steve Patton, which led to a deal that saved taxpayer money and wrapped up months before the mayor’s re-election bid, but didn’t do anything to fix police misconduct discipline.
It didn’t work.
“I know you [want to talk about the past] you are just going to have to leave a little disappointed today,” Emanuel said, in that calm, unfamiliar tone.
The mayor dodged the question with such honesty that it didn’t seem much like a dodge at all.
That’s the kind of bizarre day it was at City Hall — a defining moment in the city’s history.
Chicago’s tolerance for police misconduct reached a tipping point last month when the world saw dashcam video of officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald with all 16 bullets in his gun.
And Wednesday, maybe for the first time ever, a white Chicago mayor stood in front of the City Council, leaned into the microphone and admitted things about our town that past leaders may have been too proud, too ashamed or too culpable to publicly admit.
Yes, there is a code of silence within the department that harbors crooked cops, and that’s a top reason some people don’t trust Chicago police, the mayor said.
Yes, some racist police officers treat white professional men who look like Rahm with more respect and fairness than they afford to black and brown Chicagoans, the mayor said.
Yes, we live in a city starkly divided by class and an economic disparity that contributes to violence in poor parts of town, the mayor said.
Those are tough things to admit and even harder realities to stare in the face.
So after telling that brutal truth, the mayor said he wants to look at the road ahead. He wants to focus on making real changes to the Police Department and beyond. He called for Chicagoans to respect each other.
When Emanuel said “respect is a two-way street,” it sounded as if was reminding himself of that, and it seemed the mayor put it to practice while taking questions from reporters.
Something about Emanuel seemed different — odd, in a refreshing way.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who represents a ward that includes a Far South Side part of town some people call the “Wild Hundreds,” said he thinks that “something clicked” in the mayor’s head since the video of Laquan’s death became public.
“I think the light bulb has gone on. I think the mayor has finally got it,” Beale said.
Beale sounded hopeful, even confident, that the mayor’s public confession of our city’s worst sins — admitting the evils of racism and neglect that have stacked the deck against people living in Beale's part of town — now provides a “golden opportunity” to actually try to solve our historically unsolvable problems.
Clearly, it’s a long shot. Still, it means we’ve got a chance.
So, maybe that’s why I didn’t protest too much when Emanuel said he wanted to look at the road ahead when it came to talking about fighting to change police union contract rules that help crooked cops avoid serious punishment, rather than rehashing the changes he didn’t try to make during his first term.
The mayor explained himself as if Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo was in the room when he said, “I know there’s a contract, and I know what the rules are, but I want you to hear it defies common sense to people.
“Yes, an officer can be stripped of their police authority, but if you are under a criminal investigation, I understand what the rules are, under investigation for a criminal act, it defies common sense that you are also getting a paycheck.”
It wasn’t a threat. The mayor said he plans to ask the police union to be his partner in doing what’s best for Chicagoans, including the officers they represent.
“If we are going to deal with everything, representation on the Police Department, the culture that enabled and enables, literally, a code of silence, we are going to have to deal with this set of issues as it relates to what people think is not right in the same way that I’m going to have to … re-evaluate the policy on videos. I need you to come forward and be fresh,” Emanuel said.
“You need to come forward and be part of the solution and you need to hear everybody who was on the floor today and throughout the city. … You can’t just say no. I want your ideas. I want you to be part of the solution. I want you to be thinking through that solution. But it’s not just that it defies common sense. There is a sense that it’s part of creating a context where those asked to uphold the law get a latitude where they can act like they are above the law.”
Chicago’s defining moment deserves straight talk.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t trust Emanuel.
It doesn’t matter if you think the mayor’s teary-eyed speech was manufactured to save his own skin.
None of that matters anymore.
We all watched a Chicago police officer pump 16 bullets into a black teenager until he was dead.
We all read the reports filed by officers who vouched for their fellow police triggerman now charged with first-degree murder by telling stories that just don’t jibe with the dashcam video of the boy’s death.
And that’s what led to a federal probe of the Police Department and forced Chicago’s mayor to air our city’s dirty laundry. Now, maybe, after generations of neglect, abuse and discrimination, we can do something to give people living in forgotten parts of town the justice and respect they deserve.
So, if police union leaders and the rank-and-file members they represent refuse to budge on the contract, refuse to make misconduct investigations public and refuse to be investigated the same way as citizens placed under arrest, they should know a lot of Chicagoans will consider it a confession that those precious rules are there to protect the worst of them.
The same would have been true for Emanuel if he didn’t come clean about the reason it took so long to release the video of Laquan’s death.
When the Emanuel administration fought to keep the dashcam video of Laquan’s death private, the mayor — on the recommendation of his city attorney — followed the old policy of keeping potentially damning evidence secret for the sake of protecting the integrity of an investigation.
The city’s decision to not release that video created suspicion of an orchestrated cover-up and eroded trust in the police department and the mayor himself.
That was the wrong decision to make, Emanuel said.
“While I followed the practice … I should have challenged it. I should have challenged an assumption of a practice,” the mayor said.
“Just because we have done it like this for 40 years doesn’t mean it’s right. Well guess what? That’s true about this. Just because that’s how we’ve done it, I should have along the way challenged the entire legal team and others, of how a practice that was actually undermining the very value that I think is essential to the public safety and wholeness of the city.”
Emanuel continued, “I should have given voice to the public’s growing suspicion, distrust and anger. My voice is supposed to be their voice. My voice is supposed to be for those who are powerless, to make sure that their voice matters as much as those who are in power or have power, in whatever fashion that power is.”
I never thought I would say it, especially in a moment like this, but Emanuel is absolutely right.
But if it turns out the mayor is all talk and no action, this city will never forgive him.
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