Justice

Emails Suggest Mayor’s Staff Knew About Laquan McDonald Video During His Re-Election Campaign

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) likely knew that there was unreleased video evidence of Officer Jason Van Dyke killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald within 50 days of the shooting, internal emails obtained by NBC Chicago indicate.

The emails show Emanuel staffers discussing the existence of dashcam video of the killing in early December of last year, as Emanuel’s re-election effort was entering the home stretch. The city sought to suppress the video for over a year before a judge forced Chicago to release it to the public last month. In the early weeks after the killing, police insisted McDonald had lunged at Van Dyke with a knife — something the video proves to be untrue.

Of course, knowing that a video existed and knowing exactly what the video showed are two different things. The news station has not released the full text of the emails it obtained, making it impossible to independently assess their exact contents.

The station is careful in how it characterizes the emails, never quite saying that their FOIA uncovered clear evidence that the administration knew of contradictions between police claims and reality. Instead, the messages “show the City Hall press office was made aware of the possibility of video of the Laquan McDonald shooting on December 8, 2014,” the station reports. The station gives no indication the emails discussed reports that police took the additional step of deleting surveillance video from a nearby Burger King that likely showed the killing from another angle.

However, if NBC Chicago’s reporting has indeed uncovered the first evidence that Emanuel’s office was aware that the story his police department was pushing was dishonest, the news will bolster calls for the mayor’s resignation.

The emails are dated December 8, 2014 — less than two months after Van Dyke killed McDonald, nearly two months before Election Day in 2015, and almost a full year before charges were finally filed against Van Dyke. So far, Emanuel has convened a panel to review police practices and fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, but the moves have not quelled anger toward the mayor himself.

Much of the most pointed criticism of Emanuel has centered on the idea that he may have suppressed the truth about McDonald’s death during the closing weeks of his contentious re-election campaign. Emanuel was eventually re-elected in an April run-off following February’s initial contest. A week later, the city took the unusual step of approving a $5 million payment to McDonald’s family even though his survivors had not then filed a lawsuit. The timing of that payment so shortly after Emanuel’s job was secure again has raised suspicions that City Hall knew more about the gap between police officials’ story and the video evidence during the campaign.

Emanuel maintains that he did not see the video at all prior to its public release. He intentionally avoided watching it, he says, because the public pressure to act that would have followed would have affected States Attorney Anita Alvarez’s investigation of the killing.

Alvarez, whose resume shows a pattern of siding with cops even when their actions seem hard to defend, eventually charged van Dyke with murder. But the charges took more than a year to arrive, and were only filed once a court had compelled the city to publish the dashcam video that contradicts the Emanuel administration’s initial story about McDonald’s death.

When the mayor watched the video is not the key question for those wondering if Emanuel either allowed or inspired a hush-up during an election. The rub is in when Emanuel became aware that the story his police department had told was incorrect, regardless of whether he’d seen the evidence of the lie with his own eyes. The prospect of documentary evidence confirming Emanuel’s team knew of evidence that contradicted the official story — especially given the rapid and unsought $5 million payout to McDonald’s relatives days after his re-election — could be far more damaging.

If Emanuel continues to resist calls to step down, he might have to face voters again shortly. State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D) has introduced legislation to allow the Chicago mayor to be recalled if 85,000 voters sign a petition and at least two Chicago aldermen support the recall.