What Happened The Last Time Chicago Tried To Cover Up A Major Police Scandal

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, right, speaks about first-degree murder charges against police officer Jason Van Dyke in the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel looks on at left. Emanuel announced at a news conference Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, that McCarthy has been fired after a public outcry over the handling of the case.

After covering up the incident for more than a year, Chicago officials released video last month of the killing of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke. The video immediately sparked calls for accountability and for the resignation of top officials including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

On Sunday, after both officials said they had no plans to step down, the Department of Justice announced that it will conduct a wide-ranging civil rights investigation.

Before the DOJ announced its investigation, Emanuel tried to save face by firing Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and announcing a police task force to examine the city’s oversight and training of law enforcement. The head of Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority also resigned Sunday night.

The city’s current attempt to clean house after McDonald’s death is strikingly similar to its efforts to cover up and move beyond the wide-scale police torture the police department employed in the 1970s and 1980s under Police Commander Jon Burge.

Though the decades of Burge’s police-inflicted torture occurred far before his administration, Mayor Emanuel has had to address the aftermath. This April, Emanuel announced the establishment of a $5.5 million reparations fund for the victims, which he said would “close this book, the Burge book on the city’s history.”

Joey Mogul, a Chicago attorney with the People’s Law Office who led the campaign for the reparations fund, told ThinkProgress that it’s hard to imagine that book is closed, especially when Chicago officials are still making efforts to cover up egregious incidents of wide-scale abuse.

“The Laquan McDonald case is just the tip of the iceberg that demonstrates what we see going on, which is racist police violence, the cover-up, and then the failure to investigate or to take any responsibility,” she said. “There are changes that need to be made now with respect to the way the Chicago Police Department runs and the way it’s investigated.”

The Burge Era

In this May 24, 2010 photo, former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge departs from the federal building in Chicago during his trial where he is accused of lying about the long-ago torture of suspects.

In this May 24, 2010 photo, former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge departs from the federal building in Chicago during his trial where he is accused of lying about the long-ago torture of suspects.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File

City officials who were in power while Burge was torturing hundreds of black men on Chicago’s South Side did their best to cover up the abuses, long before Emanuel reached a settlement with the victims.

Beginning in 1972, Burge and other officers under him would routinely torture mostly black suspects in Chicago Police Area 2 in order to elicit confessions. More than 120 people in total have since accused him and his crew of “midnight detectives” of shocking, beating, or suffocating them into confessing, often to crimes they did not commit.

For decades, Burge was able to continue abusing suspects without scrutiny, largely because Chicago officials turned a blind eye. It wasn’t until 1990, after reports appeared in the alternative weekly Chicago Reader, that there became growing momentum for disciplinary action against him. Amnesty International called for an investigation, but Mayor Richard M. Daley, running for reelection in 1991, was reluctant. Though he knew about the torture during the 1980s from his time as state’s attorney, he continued to ignore calls for an investigation when he became mayor.

G. Flint Taylor, founding partner of the People’s Law Office, described Daley’s cover-up in the Huffington Post in 2012. “In 1992, after a court ordered release of an internal Office of Professional Standards Report which found that ‘certain command personnel’ participated in, and were aware of, ‘systematic abuse’ and ‘planned torture’ at Area 2, Daley, rather than accepting the report’s findings and taking corrective action, instead joined his police superintendent, who was implicated by the report, in publicly denying that systematic abuse had occurred while condemning the report as ‘lies,’ ‘rumors,’ and mere ‘allegations,'” he wrote.

It wasn’t until a series of lawsuits piled up against Burge that the police department’s internal review division suspended him from the department in 1991 and then fired him two years later.

“It was only through civil litigation and through an anonymous police source did the truth start to come out and unravel,” Mogul said. Burge was not federally prosecuted until activists took the matter to the United Nations Committee against Torture, she said.

Throughout that time, Daley refused to indict Burge or any of the other alleged torturers. Mogul said that activists in Chicago were calling for a Department of Justice investigation into Burge’s practices. “We demanded that for years and years and years and unfortunately it did not come to be,” she said.

When he was finally charged by federal prosecutors in 2008, the statute of limitations had passed on convicting him for the torture. He eventually served a little over three years in prison for perjury and was released in 2014.

Emanuel recognized last week that the city’s handling of current police violence has to address it’s history of covering up abuse. “This has to be a sustained set of changes to a systemic problem that goes back 40 or 50 years,” he said in an interview with Politico.

The McDonald Shooting

In this Oct. 20, 2014 frame from dash-cam video provided by the Chicago Police Department, Laquan McDonald, right, walks down the street moments before being shot by officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago.

In this Oct. 20, 2014 frame from dash-cam video provided by the Chicago Police Department, Laquan McDonald, right, walks down the street moments before being shot by officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago.

CREDIT: Chicago Police Department via AP

The McDonald case involves a remarkably similar cover-up perpetrated by Chicago’s mayor and other high-level city officials, Mogul said. After he was shot and killed in October 2014, the police department’s independent police review authority — which was created to replace the Office of Professional Standard, the authority that failed to investigate Burge — also failed to investigate the shooting.

In recent weeks, it’s become clear that city officials chose not to make the dash-cam footage public and concealed over an hour of video surveillance footage. After viewing the video of the shooting last year, which clearly shows that McDonald was unarmed and was walking away from authorities when he was shot, Alvarez did not immediately bring charges.

It wasn’t until an anonymous city official contacted reporters to say that the shooting “wasn’t being vigorously investigated” did the truth come out. Mogul said that official “very well could be a police officer” like the one who revealed details about the Burge torture to reporters. Without that whistle blower and without the video, it’s unlikely that Officer Van Dyke would have been charged with murder.

In a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch last week, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said an investigation by the U.S. DOJ Civil Rights Division “is necessary and appropriate, given its experience investigating the practices of police departments across the country and based on its experience prosecuting former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.”

Mogul said the investigation is a step in the right direction, but Chicago’s tendency to conceal evidence of abuse may take more than a DOJ report to remedy, especially because of how city officials become entrapped in the cover-up. There have been allegations that Emanuel concealed evidence in the McDonald case before his reelection, just as Mayor Daley decided publicizing the Burge scandal would not help him win another term. The McDonald family finalized a settlement with City Hall just one week after Emanuel’s April reelection, even though the agreement had been reached weeks earlier — a coincidence Emanuel claims has nothing to do with politics.

Despite calls for her resignation, Alvarez has said there is no way she would consider stepping down. She has blamed her opponents for trying to “turn this into their own political game.” Mayor Emanuel has also said he will not resign and has instead chosen to blame Superintendent McCarthy, who he fired earlier this week.

Mogul says she can’t give a lot of credit to Emanuel’s claim that the task force or DOJ investigation will bring about reform. “Actions speak a lot louder than words,” she said. While she questions city officials’ ability to handle the case, she said activists like the ones who demanded the torture reparations fund will keep pushing to make sure that police abuse isn’t hidden in the future.

“Here in Chicago we have activists, organizers, and attorneys who have been attempting to fix this for decades and we have young organizers who have continued to bring this to light… and change this systemic climate of racism and corruption.”