The Laquan McDonald Email Dump Shows Rahm Emanuel’s Administration in Crisis Mode

A guide to the documents released by City Hall in the aftermath of the Chicago police shooting.

Rebecca Burns January 5, 2016

Protesters march in downtown Chicago on December 18, calling for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's resignation in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting. (Bob Simpson / Flickr)

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.

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.

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 242015.

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. 

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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