On Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy amid continued unrest stemming from the release of video footage that chronicled the killing of Laquan McDonald at the hands of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.
McCarthy’s termination was a move that was, presumably, executed to help stabilize a situation that continues to unravel, as well as to maintain whatever modicum of public trust remains after additional details have further exposed the deep and long-existing rabbit hole that is corrupt Chicago policing.
There was a cover-up in Chicago. That isn’t a question, and it is hardly an assumption. As a former prosecutor, I can say that there is little doubt that even a cursory review of the video footage would establish sufficient probable cause for Van Dyke’s immediate arrest. That would not have taken 400 days to realize, even with the need to dot every administrative “i” and cross each bureaucratic “t.” The real inquiry is how far does the responsibility truly stretch in terms of who knew what when, and who failed to act.
Van Dyke’s fellow officers: One of the issues that often gets lost in the discussion around abuse of force by police is the blue wall of silence. It is impossible to close the trust chasm between law enforcement and communities of color when so many members of law enforcement will remain silent in the face of improper conduct by their colleagues. With regard to Laquan McDonald, there were other officers who were present and witnessed Van Dyke’s shooting of that 17-year-old child.
That these trained officers—each familiar with proper police protocol for not only unholstering but also discharging one’s service weapon—saw what took place and did nothing isn’t just deplorable but also imputes liability for Van Dyke’s misconduct. Those who “looked the other way” are complicit, and those who went so far as to make statements corroborating Van Dyke’s initial incredulous account that he was somehow in fear of his life are obstructers of justice. All have violated their oath as officers and are unfit to continue to serve in a position where unimpeachable integrity is the imperative that is exchanged for the vast powers and authorities given to police.
State Attorney Anita Alvarez: Anita Alvarez’s office was responsible for conducting the local investigation into the McDonald killing before the feds became involved. As the local prosecutor, at any point Alvarez could have made the decision to arrest and indict Van Dyke but inexplicably chose not to until it was a foregone conclusion that the dash-cam video of McDonald’s death would be released.
This incident serves to highlight the delicate relationship between prosecutors and police that can often lean toward misconduct. The two offices are in proverbial bed with each other, and prosecutors are actually more dependent on police than the other way around. Because of this, it isn’t unheard of for prosecutors to approach cases involving police with a heightened level of “sensitivity.” Several folks have opined that the Alvarez’s inexplicable delay was motivated by political interests: either her own, Emanuel’s, or some combination of both.
While we may never know for certain, with Alvarez having led the investigation, she had the greatest amount of information and comprehensive view of the facts and, along with the terminated McCarthy, is arguably the most culpable in the cover-up. She had the dash-cam footage and the police statements. She knew that the two did not add up, and she did nothing to address that. An ongoing federal investigation into potential civil rights violations would not have pre-empted local charges against Van Dyke for murder if probable cause existed, which it clearly did. Alvarez has to go, and there is little that anyone can say to argue differently.
Mayor Emanuel: It’s a tall order, but in leadership, there are times when you have to take responsibility for those under you. That’s why McCarthy was fired, and it is exactly why Rahm Emmanuel needs to go as well. It would be unfair to expect Emanuel to be briefed on every shooting in Chicago (although that itself calls into question a very different aspect of whether he is fit to lead the Windy City), but when your City Council approves $5 million in a pre-emptive settlement to a family and the city’s lawyers spend thousands of dollars—resource and manpower-wise—in fighting the release of this video, it is safe to say that Emanuel knew, could have known, or should have known how incongruent this entire situation was long before now.
Hard to imagine that someone who was once the White House chief of staff would be such an inept leader, so therefore, based on what he knew and chose to ignore—or what he didn’t know and chose not to become informed about—his removal is a linchpin in re-establishing the public trust. In the press conference announcing McCarthy’s termination, Emanuel claimed to take responsibility. True leadership in this situation isn’t just making McCarthy a one-off scapegoat, but making the tough decision to admit that you mishandled a situation to an abhorrent degree, and then stepping aside.
For Emanuel as well as the others named, this isn’t limited to Laquan McDonald. Much of what plagues the city of Chicago is the angst that many in its black community have felt from unjust police practices wed with a notoriously corrupt political machine. McDonald’s killing and video only provided undeniable proof. If justice is truly to carry the day in its aftermath, then it dictates that Chicago’s top brass in both politics and law enforcement must go.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights trial attorney, legal analyst and former Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor. He is also a professor of criminal justice at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter.