CHICAGO — When the federal watchdogs landed in town to start sniffing around police headquarters, it signaled to many that they’ve got their investigative noses pointed in the wrong direction — upwind from the traditional source of the department's strongest stench: City Hall, that is.
Now, don’t take that as the opinion of a cynical reporter.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, after all, is the guy who reminded everyone exactly how entrenched his administration — and the City Hall operation of every mayor for more than 40 years, for that matter — is in the day-to-day operation of the Police Department that the feds are investigating.
That became clear when Emanuel explained he was sorry for going along with city attorney Steve Patton’s decision to follow a longtime City Hall policy of keeping potentially damning evidence secret for the sake of protecting the integrity of an investigation. That was the reason the city gave for holding the dashcam video of Police Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald with all 16 bullets in his gun.
“Just because we have done it like this for 40 years doesn’t mean it’s right," Emanuel said. "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 might as well have been talking about how generations of mayors have either established or unquestionably followed policies that people who know about these things say protect the thin-blue-line code of silence that a federal court ruling, and Rahm, himself, has said exists in the Police Department.
Over the last few weeks, political insiders and gadflies, police officers and public relations flacks, ticked-off aldermen and union radicals, have called to complain — off the record, of course — that nobody has completely explained how City Hall sits at the center of a rigged game that helps protect dirty officers from being fired.
“You just gotta lay it all out there, piece by piece, so everybody, and the feds, know how it works and can see how it works,” one off-the-record complainer said. “Let 'em decide for themselves.”
Over the last decade, I’ve read enough police brutality lawsuits, dug into the officer misconduct discipline process and, during the process of reporting stories, witnessed exactly how interconnected the Mayor’s Office is with the day-to-day operations at the Police Department.
So, what the heck, if it might help the feds sniff out the systemic problem plaguing Chicago’s Police Department, why not give it a shot?
The system that withheld the Laquan shooting video from the public goes way back, more than a half-century, to the most heated moments of the civil rights movement and the construction of public housing towers. It goes back to when Chicago’s most iconic mayor, the late Richard J. Daley, once proclaimed our town’s police were here to “preserve disorder.”
There are plenty of reasons why it’s politically important for Chicago’s boss to demonstrate unwavering support for the police force — and the Fraternal Order of Police endorsement that almost certainly guarantees tens of thousands of votes — by agreeing to union contract terms that conceal the officers' identities when misconduct allegations are made and require a mayoral-appointed Police Board’s approval before a dirty cop can get fired, to name a few.
Outsiders, maybe even a U.S. attorney general from North Carolina, might think that’s an exaggeration of City Hall’s role in alleged police corruption.
Chicagoans know better.
In our town, everybody knows all roads lead to the mayor's office, no matter who’s in power.
The mayor historically sits atop an elaborate pyramid of power designed by the Democratic Machine that cynics will tell you was constructed to preserve a publicly accepted level of crookedness locals refer to, sometimes lovingly, as "The Chicago Way.”
At first glance, it might look like Chicago’s top cop runs the Police Department, but it’s Chicago’s mayor who is always in charge. Not only does the mayor hire the police superintendent, he sets the police budget and has constant oversight.
Former police boss Garry McCarthy, recently fired in the wake of the Laquan shooting scandal that brought the feds to town, will tell you that Emanuel called him almost every single morning to get debriefed on Police Department doings.
Also, there’s decades of evidence that the executive branch of Chicago government systematically set limits on police superintendent’s authority, specifically when it comes to establishing and implementing certain department policies and police officer discipline.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Emanuel’s City Hall spin machine, for instance, preapproves the top cop’s public statements and determines when, how and if certain reports get released to the public.
The most recent example of that includes the release of the so-called “Safer Report” suggesting police misconduct reforms, which was quietly made public without sending out a news release. And sources told DNAinfo Chicago that McCarthy’s draft report on what he heard after this summer’s “listening tour” was put on a shelf before it was shared with community leaders.
Also, it should be noted, if you send a Freedom of Information Act request to the Police Department, it gets forwarded to the city attorney’s office, which makes all decisions on what documents and information — incident reports and a certain dashcam videos of a police shooting, for instance — the public has a right to see.
And when it comes to police discipline, City Hall has its hands in every part of the process.
It all starts with the Fraternal Order of Police union contract, which includes provisions that for generations have prohibited release of officers' identities and details of misconduct allegations levied against them. It also sets rules for when officers involved in police shootings can be questioned by investigators, among other things.
The mayor has the final say on police union contract terms before the City Council gets a chance to give the deal its rubber stamp.
DNAinfo Chicago reported that starting in 2013, McCarthy made a failed attempt to push Emanuel to change rules in the contract — along with making changes to other city laws and policies that the then-top cop believed stood in the way of reforming police discipline.
Ultimately, Emanuel signed off on a contract billed as a win for taxpayers that allowed details about officer misconduct complaints to remain secret.
During a recent "Chicago Tonight" TV interview, FOP boss Dean Angelo said that’s not the union’s fault, then deflected questions to City Hall’s chief labor negotiator, Jim Franczek, who was hired in that role by former Mayor Richard M. Daley and remains in Emanuel's employ.
"I don’t think that we pulled the wool over Jim Franczek’s eyes in the negotiation process. ... We didn't hoodwink Jim Franczek,” Angelo said.
In a lot of ways, union contract provisions and city laws set the rules for how officers are investigated for serious misconduct allegations — brutality complaints, racial profiling and filing false reports, among them — by the Independent Police Review Authority, IPRA for short, that the agency’s critics say is anything but independent of City Hall.
It can be a tangled web. Sometimes, the city attorney's office must use all its might to defend officers against potentially costly, and sometimes damning, civil lawsuits. At the same time, those officers being defended by the city often face serious supensions or even termination from the city.
Here’s how the city's police discipline system often works:
• When IPRA launches an investigation into misconduct allegations, the process or the release of findings can sometimes be delayed until the matter is settled.
• In many civil lawsuits, the city attorney (called the corporation counsel) takes the lead to defend police officers from misconduct allegations, even as those same police officers are fighting against the city to keep their jobs. The city attorney's office often negotiates settlements that give payouts to accusers, and sometimes include provisions to keep evidence secret — like the Laquan shooting video, for instance — without admitting any guilt on the part of the city or the officers.
• Once the case has been settled, which can take months or years, IPRA often reviews evidence in the civil case — including the city's defense of the officers — for its disciplinary investigation to determine if allegations should be sustained. In sustained cases, the mayor-appointed head of IPRA recommends punishment to the police superintendent.
• If the top cop wants to fire an officer, he doesn’t have unilateral authority to do it. According to the discipline protocol, officers facing termination and harsh suspensions first get a hearing before the Chicago Police Board.
• Since January 1999, only about 30 percent of officers facing termination hearings before the mayor-appointed Police Board got fired.
In about 70 percent of termination hearings, the Police Board has either doled out lesser punishment, or the accused officers have resigned before the hearings. About 43 percent of officers who the city’s top cop wanted to fire eventually returned to duty, according to a Chicago Justice Project report.
Emanuel, who has publicly acknowledged problems in the city’s police misconduct disciplinary system after a series of published reports about its ineptness, has used his authority to make minor changes.
Earlier this year, the mayor shook up the Police Board, appointing former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot as president, and adding two new board members.
Earlier this month, Emanuel fired McCarthy and IPRA boss Scott Ando, whom he replaced with Sharon Fairley, and created a task force on police accountability to take a good long look at the broken system.
That leaves the mayor and his city attorney Steve Patton as the only survivors of the Laquan shooting scandal.
Both of their offices are at City Hall — 121 N. LaSalle, for our out-of-town guests.
A lot of people think the federal watchdogs should start sniffing over there because any corruption uncovered in the Police Department is a symptom of a cancer — radicals call it “institutional racism” — that developed within a city government run “the Chicago Way” for generations.
It’s what keeps Chicago starkly divided by race and class, a modern "Tale of Two Cities."
Chicago isn’t the first American city to be rocked by unjust police shootings and officer misconduct scandals, and it won’t be the last.
You could argue that when unjust police shootings and officer misconduct scandals occurred in other towns — Boston, New York City, Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., to name a few — too much blame got heaped on police departments and not enough on the governments that control them.
If the feds have the guts to change directions and dig into City Hall, they'll find a perfect opportunity to put the whole system — the Chicago Way, if you will — on trial before a national audience.
It might save our city from itself.
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