Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is facing calls for inquiries, shakeups and even his resignation as he tries to address what a Chicago Sun-Times analysis on Tuesday described as “racial tensions brought to a boil by the Laquan McDonald shooting video.”
The mayor, a political careerist who long ago mastered the art of pointing the finger of blame at others, has already fired the police superintendent amid a national outcry over the long-suppressed video of a white police officer shooting an African-American teenager 16 times. Removing Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy is a significant move. But it will not be enough. The calls for Emanuel’s resignation are being voiced loudly enough, and consistently enough, that the mayor was forced to address them at the Tuesday press conference where he announced the removal of the superintendent. But Emanuel had no good answer. He simply responded with a curt, “Thank you.”
So what are citizens to do?
Unlike many cities, where voters can petition for a recall election and remove a mayor, neither the city of Chicago nor the state of Illinois has established clear provisions for dismissing a mayor before the end of his or her term. That’s a notable omission, as Chicago Tribune cartoonist Scott Stantis illustrated by showing Emanuel at a Thanksgiving table announcing “…and I’m thankful Chicago doesn’t have mayoral recall.”
“Seriously, a state that is corrupt and seemingly proud of it has no laws to impeach or recall crooked pols,” Stantis notes with regard to local officials.
Stantis makes a key point. The website Ballotpedia explains that, with the exception of a narrow provision for recalling governors, enacted in 2010 after officials and citizens had struggled to figure out how to remove scandal-plagued Governor Rod Blagojevich, “the Illinois Constitution does not specifically address recall of local officials.” While one Illinois city, Buffalo Grove, has experimented with a local recall provision, Chicago lacks an adequate tool kit for holding mayors and city council members to account—just as it lacks term limits for Emanuel and other top officials.
Of course, Emanuel could have been held to account earlier this year, when he faced reelection. The graphic video of the officer firing repeatedly at Laquan McDonald, who was moving away from the officer, is a year old. Had it been released in a timely manner, the political dynamic might well have changed for Emanuel, whose weak showing in a February primary forced the Democratic mayor into an April runoff. Emanuel and his wealthy backers had to spend millions to fend off a spirited grassroots challenge from progressive Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
The Tribune’s Stantis echoes the skepticism of a lot of Chicagoans regarding the long delay in releasing the video—and the clear efforts of authorities to create false impressions regarding the shooting—when he observes: “So the Laquan McDonald shooting video was withheld by the city for over a year, a period that saw Emanuel in a difficult run for re-election. Pure coincidence, no doubt.”
Tribune writer John Kass is blunter: “Rahm sat on the video, and kept sitting on it, all the way through his reelection, as black ministers and other African-American political figures rallied to his side to get out the black vote and deny that vote to Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia. If the video had come out during the election campaign, Rahm Emanuel would not be mayor today.”
But Emanuel is still the mayor. And his actions as mayor should be examined as part of inquiries into much more than a single video.
The federal investigation that must come in response to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s request for an investigation by the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division into the Chicago Police Department’s practices will have to focus on questions of whether those practices violated the Constitution and federal law. As Madigan noted in her letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “The shocking death of Laquan McDonald is the latest tragedy in our city that highlights serious questions about the use of unlawful and excessive force by Chicago police officers and the lack of accountability for such abuse,” Madigan said in a statement. “Trust in the Chicago Police Department is broken. Chicago cannot move ahead and rebuild trust between the police and the community without an outside, independent investigation into its police department to improve policing practices.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, church leaders, and #BlackLivesMatter activists who have been protesting for days on the streets of Chicago have argued that, without an independent investigation, confidence in local law enforcement cannot be restored.
The calls for federal intervention, and for the appointment of a special prosecutor, highlight concerns that Mayor Emanuel is either unwilling or unable to address the crisis.
Yet, there is no structure to enable the people to hold Emanuel to account.
That, too, is a crisis.
If the federal inquiry is to be meaningful, it must extend beyond a review of police practices and include an investigation of the political side of the equation. There has to be an examination of the actions taken by the mayor, his aides, his appointees, and the city council. As a Sun-Times analysis notes, “Emanuel has been under fire for keeping the McDonald video under wraps until after the April 7 mayoral runoff and waiting until one week after the election to settle the case for $5 million even before the McDonald family had filed a lawsuit. The video was released only after a judge’s order.” Those are points of beginning for a broader inquiry.
The crisis in Chicago demands attention, and accountability.
It also demands the establishment of accountability tools that can be employed by the people. No matter how things play out for Mayor Emanuel in the current crisis, Illinois officials should recognize the inadequacy of existing election laws and provide Illinoisans with a clearly defined power (similar to that which is afforded citizens in states across the country) to recall state, county, and local elected officials—including the mayor of Chicago.