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New Year’s Eve in Chicago may lack an iconic midnight ball drop, but this year the city got a massive document drop as it prepared to ring in 2016. On Thursday morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office released hundreds of internal emails and other documents related to the October 2014 fatal police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald. Thirteen months passed before the city released the graphic video showing McDonald’s death, stoking suspicions of a cover-up and fueling calls for Emanuel’s resignation.
The emails were made public in response to open records requests, but some found the timing of the release suspect — Chicagoans headed out to celebrate the new year were unlikely to wade through 3,000 pages split across seven PDFs. Some readers launched an online collaboration to catalog all the emails and their contents for easier reference. The catalog, nearly complete, can be viewed here. Its contributors include Streetsblog Chicago reporter Steven Vance, Chicago Teachers Union member Luke Carman, Twitter user natalie solidarity and numerous others who pitched in after news of the effort began circulating online on New Year’s Eve.
In These Times sifted through the documents and compiled some of the most significant information about City Hall’s handling of the case, annotated for reader reference (the seven files we refer to can be found in chronological order here). The emails show that the McDonald case was on the Emanuel administration’s radar within two months of the fatal shooting.
They also suggest that as the mayor prepared for a tough re-election campaign, his office was often more focused on running damage control than investigating disturbing questions about McDonald’s death and the broader police culture that may have enabled it. Mayor Emanuel’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Cover-up in City Hall? “This case will bring a microscope of national attention”
Perhaps the central question surrounding the killing of Laquan McDonald has been what Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration knew and when. The speedy settlement negotiated by the city — $5 million paid to the family without a trial — during the height of Emanuel’s re-election campaign has been scrutinized by many.
Emanuel himself is largely absent from the scenes in the documents, which do not appear to contain any indication as to whether the mayor actually watched the dashcam video of McDonald’s killing prior to its release — an issue that has been the subject of much speculation. (The mayor claims he did not.)
But the emails show the Emanuel administration began discussing the case within two months of the October 2014 shooting, seemingly aware that it could become a political flashpoint.
The city’s law department first requested video of McDonald’s shooting death from CPD on November 14, 2014 (file 1, pg 7), though it is unclear when they received it. City Hall began receiving press inquiries about alleged discrepancies in the case as early as December 8 of that year, (file 1, pg 15) and a December 9 email makes reference to two fatal police-involved shootings that were discussed by staff, presumably offline — McDonald’s, as well as the October 14 death of 25-year-old Ronald Johnson (file 1, pg 22).
As the Chicago Tribune reported, the city’s law department indicated that it was monitoring McDonald’s case closely and bracing for a legal challenge:
[On December 9], Stephen Patton — City Hall’s top attorney — emailed Emanuel’s then-chief of staff, senior adviser and others with an update on the McDonald situation. Though the teen’s family had not yet filed a lawsuit, the city believed one was imminent.
“I have again asked our lawyers to be on the lookout for a complaint in that matter and to notify us immediately if and when a complaint is filed,” Patton wrote.
A January 20, 2015 email that had previously been obtained by NBC5 then shows another attorney for the city emailing Patton with the subject line: “Fatal shooting on video, 4000 S Pulaski.” This refers to McDonald, but the content of the message is entirely redacted. (file 1, pg 34)
Lawyers for the McDonald family approached the city on February 27, just days after Emanuel had been forced into a runoff with challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in his reelection campaign.
In a March 6 letter outlining demands for a settlement, an attorney for the family insinuated that the video could trigger a backlash should the case go to trial:
I submit the graphic dash cam video will have a powerful impact on any jury and the Chicago community as a whole. This case will undoubtedly bring a microscope of national attention to the shooting itself as well as the City’s pattern, practice and procedures in rubber-stamping fatal police shootings of African Americans as “justified” (file 1, pg 92).
In settlement records contained in the documents, attorneys for the family also raised questions about the veracity of witness testimonies submitted in McDonald’s case.
In a March 23 letter, family attorney Michael Robbins alluded to an alleged discrepancy discovered while reviewing McDonald’s case file. “We were also surprised to learn that the police reports we reviewed, which contained summaries of witness statements supposedly taken on October 20 and 21, 2014, almost 5 months ago, were ‘submitted’ on March 15, 2015, nine days after the City received our demand letter,” he wrote. (file 1, pg 141)
By April 1, the emails show, the city had reached an agreement with the McDonald family, but required that “the fact and terms” of the settlement remain confidential until they were presented to the City Council. (file 1, pg 184)
It was only after Emanuel won re-election on April 7 that aldermen voted to approve the agreement, reportedly without having seen the video of McDonald’s killing. Memos circulated to the City Council about the settlement, as well as internal talking points used about the case in April 2015, are referenced but not included in the documents released Thursday. (file 1, pg 212)
Settlement records contained in the released documents show that during negotiations, the city pushed to include what lawyers for the family called a “sweeping” confidentiality clause. Specifically, the city sought to prevent the family from releasing the video or other materials until after criminal charges were concluded — an argument that the Emanuel administration also made as it fought the FOIA lawsuit that eventually forced the video’s release on November 24, 2015.
In response, the McDonald family’s lawyers named the same concern simultaneously being raised by members of the press and advocates seeking to pry the video loose — waiting for the conclusion of criminal investigations could effectively mean withholding the video for years, even if the Emanuel administration was not technically blocking its release.
In an April 6 letter finalizing the terms of the settlement, Robbins called this provision “unreasonable” and said that “such a broad, sweeping confidentiality provision” had not been discussed in earlier meetings with the City (file 1, pg 184). The city ultimately modified the agreement to allow disclosure of the video under a court order or in the event that it had already been publicly disclosed.
In response to an April 16 press inquiry about why it would not release the video, the city maintained: “We do not want to interfere with or compromise the pending criminal investigation by federal and state law enforcement authorities, but we are confident this video will be released at the appropriate time when their investigation is complete.” (file 1, pg 325)
Missing audio: “The number of malfunctions seems a bit odd”
Another key question in the Laquan McDonald case concerns the absence of discernible audio in dashcam videos showing his death. Cameras mounted inside five squad cars on the scene captured the faint sound of emergency sirens and other noises outside the cars. But as the Chicago Tribune reported on November 25, 2015, all the videos released thus far lack any audio of officers’ conversations inside the car or over their radios, fueling suspicions of tampering by Chicago police.
In a press conference held the day before the first video’s release, then-police Superintendent Garry McCarthy suggested that the lack of audio could be chalked up to technical difficulties. But he also acknowledged that “sometimes officers need to be disciplined if they don’t turn it (the camera) on at the right circumstance.”
The emails released last week suggest that Emanuel staffers may have been dubious that all the missing audio was indeed the result of technical glitches, but sought to preempt further inquiries on the issue.
In response to the Tribune story, senior mayoral adviser David Spielfogel wrote to other top staff on November 25, 2015, “We might want to proactively get ahead of the onslaught of questions and release new dashcam rules. The number of malfunctions seems a bit odd” (file 5, pg 260).
Chief of Staff Eileen Mitchell responded, “No question. … I asked GFM [former superintendent Gary F. McCarthy] to get him and CPD to share with our office all they have on this issue so we could craft our narrative” (file 5, page 260).
Two days later, Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety Janey Rountree drafted suggested measures for CPD related to enforcement of its dashcam policies. Mitchell asked, “What are the chances that GFM would announce these as his own?” (file 6, pg 100).
While a subsequent response is redacted, most of the measures were ultimately adopted after McCarthy’s December 1 ouster. New interim police superintendent John Escalante told reporters on December 4 that he would commence inspections verifying that officers were using dashcams properly and reporting any malfunctions and step up enforcement for non-compliance.
In the November 27 email, Rountree also appears to acknowledge that foul play could have been involved in the missing audio. Among the list of suggested measures on dashcams, she wrote, “need to consider at this point whether we should discipline any of the officers who responded to the scene of shooting of laquan mcdonald” (file 6, pg 100). It’s not clear whether this is currently being considered.
Coordination with IPRA: “That’s what happens when they don’t give us a heads up.”
CPD wasn’t the only one to receive guidance from City Hall. As media interest in McDonald’s death mounted, the documents also suggest that the Emanuel administration had a heavy hand in crafting the public statements of the Independent Police Review Board (IPRA), which was investigating the case — and, as its name suggests, is supposed to be a body for independent review of police-involved shootings.
As the Chicago Sun Times reported, the emails show mayoral aides drafting statements for former IPRA head Scott Ando, including one that accompanied the city’s announcement of the $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family. The IPRA also shared information about potential police misconduct cases being investigated by the Justice Department and Cook County prosecutors. Advocates have repeatedly raised questions about the degree of the IPRA’s autonomy from City Hall.
The documents additionally show staffers growing exasperated when IPRA staff failed to coordinate its press statements with City Hall. On July 27, 2015, Deputy Director of Communications Adam Collins forwarded a story by the Better Government Association about Chicago’s high number of fatal police shootings relative to other cities. He expressed frustration that IPRA had failed to play up Chicago’s transparency in making this data available publicly when commenting for the story.
“Would have been a much smarter answer for IPRA than what they said,” he wrote to other top aides. “That’s what happens when they don’t give us a heads up though” (file 2, page 271).
Missing minutes of Burger King video: “People may assume there was a CPD cover-up”
Allegations of police tampering have also arisen in relation to an 86-minute gap in video footage taken from a Burger King security camera near the shooting scene.
As the McDonald case captured national headlines in November, a Burger King manager publicly accused Chicago police of erasing the footage from the security camera. The Chicago Tribune reports that the new records shed light on these accusations:
Documents released Thursday include an affidavit from the restaurant’s information technology supervisor, who stated there were only two possible explanations for the gap: Someone intentionally deleted the footage or they inadvertently removed the files instead of copying them.
“I believe that a person with sophisticated knowledge of such video surveillance systems could delete video footage intentionally,” the supervisor wrote.
NBC5 first broke the story of the missing footage in May 2015, and later obtained screengrabs that appear to show a Chicago police officer at a Burger King computer terminal.
As press inquiries on the issue began arriving that month, emails show, the city’s law department was quick to defend CPD internally.
“I think we absolutely have to push back on this,” wrote deputy counsel Liza Franklin to other staffers on May 20, 2015. “Tom [Deputy counsel Thomas Platt] can speak to what happened but CPD absolutely did NOT erase any video” (file 2, pg 128).
Platt affirmed that the video had been seized by IPRA and federal investigators, neither of which had yet suggested or concluded that there had been any evidence of tampering. But it’s not clear that investigators had told the city that tampering could be ruled out, either: “I do not want to speak too soon about the results of the forensic investigation because neither has officially said anything on this point,” Platt subsequently cautioned (file 2, pg 128).
Nevertheless, the mayor’s office and the CPD appear to have spoken in one voice on the issue of the missing footage, with Emanuel staffers drafting statements for the police department to issue (file 2, pg 128). When the same allegations resurfaced in November 2015, lawyers for the city continued to rely on the CPD’s version of events, even though the allegations concerned a police cover-up.
“Good here,” replied attorney Stephen Patton to a response to press proposed by staffers on November 25. “But please make sure CPD confirms accuracy. This is accurate based on the facts reported to me … but we should confirm with CPD, which has the firsthand knowledge here” (file 5, pg 113).
IPRA staff members also coordinated with City Hall on responses to Burger King press inquiries. In another November 25 thread discussing about how to answer a similar question from the New York Times, former head Scott Ando suggested using his statement, which claimed that “the absence of video was a result of the system malfunctioning.” He suggested that his statement was “more assertive and should put this to bed” (file 5, pg 90).
Aides do not appear to consider the matter to be at rest quite yet, however. A December 4 email from Rountree reads: “For when we need it, below is a statement we could use for the BK video or the CPD case report on Laquan McDonald. In both cases, people may assume there was a CPD cover-up or tampering with the video, and in both cases, those are subjects of the federal investigation.” The statement itself is redacted (file 7, pg 481).
Surveillance of protesters: “Trolling the Twitters”
A theme that is repeated throughout the emails is Emanuel staffers’ meticulous monitoring of public sentiment about the case, including tracking announcements of protests.
“Trolling the Twitters and I just saw this,” wrote chief spokesperson Kelley Quinn in a November 21, 2015 email — just as the city was preparing to release the video — alerting staffers of an activist call to boycott Black Friday. (file 4, pg 34) As demonstrations erupted in the wake of the video, staffers began sending out live updates about the location, size and characteristics of marches.
“About 150 folks sitting in Michigan Avenue at balbo. This is the same group with more people in it,” reported Chief Operating Officer Joe Deal, referring to a march that occurred on November 24, the evening of the video’s release.
“Any sign it’s growing?” asked David Spielfogel about half an hour later.
“Doesn’t seem to be growing,” responded Deal, adding in a subsequent email: “Here is a picture from in front of district 1. It looks like mostly college kids. They are trying to antagonize the line of cpd who are in front of the door” (file 5, pg 81).
Staffers also monitored trending hashtags. In a November 25 email with the subject line “Social,” a communications consultant wrote: “FYI #laquanmcdonald is no longer trending in the U.S. or Chicago, but #FreeMalcolmLondon is the #1 in Chicago” (file 5 pg, 165).
At other points, staffers appear to have attempted to intervene preemptively in order to shape community responses to the video. On November 20, prominent African-American lawyer Graham Grady wrote to Stephen Patton to express concern that Chicago may “erupt” if and when the McDonald video is released.
He suggested a solution: “What if the Mayor and some community leaders such as Fr. Pfleger lead a peaceful demonstration with 100+ African-American youth wearing red mortar boards to symbolize education as the solution?” he asks. Grady also offered to pay for 100 of the caps, which cost $10 each.
“Not a bad idea,” Spielfogel commented to other staffers. “We have five days to build community buy in and dialogue. We shouldn’t waste a second” (The march did not end up taking place). (file 4, pg 6).
Ultimately, of course, such efforts failed to contain protests demanding Emanuel’s resignation, as well as calls for broader changes to address Chicago’s sordid history of police corruption and brutality.
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Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.