Chicago’s ‘independent’ cop watchdog not so independent in Laquan McDonald case

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. © Jim Young
A New Year’s Eve release of hundreds of internal emails by the City of Chicago reveals the Independent Police Review Authority not living up to its name as “independent.” In one email, the mayor’s office said the IPRA was giving a “statement we approved.”

After weeks of requests from multiple media outlets, thousands of pages of emails pertaining to the Laquan McDonald case have been released. The records dump took place on Thursday – New Year’s Eve – the start of a long holiday weekend when most people are more focused on celebrating. On October 20, 2014, 17-year-old McDonald was walking away from police while carrying a small knife when he was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke, who this week pled not guilty to murder charges following the release of a dashcam video last month.

The IPRA is billed as a civilian agency within the city government. It is responsible for assessing police shootings, but many emails reveal that the agency coordinated its handling of the case with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staff.

On December 5, 2014, former IPRA chief Scott Ando emailed Janey Rountree, Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety, to provide a “list of cases pending review by either the [State Attorney’s Office] or the [US Attorney’s Office]” involving Chicago police misconduct. Ando also indicated which officers were being charged at the time.

“In this case it was a status update on cases that were being reviewed by prosecutors for possible criminal investigation. The mayor’s office obviously does not direct investigations, nor are any employees involved in those investigations,” Adam Collins, a spokesman for the mayor, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

In another email to Rountree, Collins expressed frustration with the IPRA for not taking his advice when responding to a question from the media regarding McDonald.

That May 26 email reads in part, “Against my recommendation, IPRA has already provided this response that was a little antagonistic. I’ve asked that they follow up with this as well to soften and reinforce their message,” while going on to provide a paragraph that played up IPRA’s investigatory powers and its independence.

In an earlier email dated April 10 to Stephen Patton Collins, a top legal adviser to Mayor Emanuel, Collins had expressed more satisfaction with the IPRA. In that one he reported that Jeremy Gorner of the Chicago Tribune had “just asked IPRA about the McDonald settlement,” alluding to the $5 million civil payout to the McDonald family.

“IPRA is giving him the statement we approved,” Collins wrote, going on to paste the two sentence statement.

On November 18, a week before the release of the dashcam footage showing McDonald’s killing, Collins emailed several representatives of police and law departments telling them, “we need one voice on this topic,” and then provided a “city statement” to provide talking points.

“Here’s a first crack. I don’t think we should stray far from where we have been all along on this,” the email reads, before providing a draft of an official explanation as to why the video has yet to be released.

The dump of internal emails has only fueled more criticism of Chicago’s government on social media and in the streets of Chicago, where protests calling for Emanuel’s resignation have not let up.

Dozens of protesters gathered at Emanuel’s home for the third evening in a row on Thursday, promising to show up for at least another 13 days to symbolize the 16 gunshots McDonald took from police.

Elsewhere on New Year’s Eve, protesters temporarily took over parts of City Hall and a Hyatt hotel lobby.

These demonstrations were anticipated in some of the released emails. In one dated November 20, a campaign donor of Emanuel, Graham Grady, writes to Stephen Patton, one of Emanuel’s top advisers, offering to finance what could be described as controlled opposition.

“Steve, I love Chicago and I’m concerned that the city may erupt when and if the video gets out,” Grady writes. “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 while also invoking the image of Laquan McDonald in a positive manner?”

“You can get red mortar board caps for $10 bucks a piece. I’ll pay for 100 of them. Please let me know if I may be of assistance in helping in any way,” the email ends.