In any prominent public-facing job held only by a few, some men and women become celebrities. Big-city police chiefing is no different, and Garry McCarthy is one of those names that rings out even beyond the borders of his own domain.
But now McCarthy is looking to make an unusual jump even for such a famous lawman. Barely two years after Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) made him the scapegoat for a hamfisted cover-up of a police killing, the ex-Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department is gearing up for a mayoral run. A campaign site went live Monday under the slogan “Chicago Needs Change,” and an exploratory committee founded last fall began inviting local dignitaries to a fundraiser scheduled for February 11, the Chicago Tribune reports.
McCarthy has pinned his star to some major political lapels over the years, leveraging the fame he garnered alongside Rudy Giuliani (R) on September 11, 2001, into an identity as a fixer. But that reputation was always exaggerated, even before Emanuel left McCarthy holding the bag for the coverup that had benefited both men.
When Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) needed a new, reformer face atop policing in Newark, NJ, during his mayoral tenure, he hired McCarthy. As crime statistics dipped, McCarthy co-starred alongside Booker in a television documentary series about the city’s revival. It would be years before a Justice Department investigation concluded that McCarthy had presided over rampant racial profiling and a civilian complaints system that buried hundreds of reports of abusive treatment and rights violations by Newark officers. The drop in violent crime recorded in McCarthy’s statistics and dramatized in the TV show helped make Booker’s political career, but citizens of the city said the much-publicized numbers didn’t reflect the reality in their neighborhoods.
McCarthy, whose long rise to prominence in New York was closely linked to that city’s reliance on the CompStat system that quantifies policing but also allows supervisors to manipulate data to serve political needs, was long gone by the time the public image of Newark’s revival began to crumble. He had already been summoned by another famous politician with ambitions. Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) hired McCarthy away from Newark to take over Chicago’s top police job in 2011 — putting him in a still brighter spotlight as head law enforcer for then-President Barack Obama’s hometown, working for the man who had run Obama’s White House for the first couple years of his historic presidency.
McCarthy’s reputation for delivering statistical change that would make headlines made him a natural fit for Emanuel’s needs. The other face of that reputational coin — McCarthy’s failure to obtain the deeper reforms necessary to improve community-cop relationships on the street, or to change how residents feel walking their neighborhoods — eventually caught up with both men. McCarthy’s team under-counted homicides and aggravated assaults to generate warm headlines for himself and his mayor with positive statistical claims that later investigations showed were ill-founded. The department’s “cowboy culture” of reckless and abusive street tactics continued unchecked, generating another Justice Department investigation into another McCarthy department with another wave of alarming stories of daily abuses visited on the public by men and women in uniform.
Unlike in Newark, though, McCarthy wouldn’t get a chance to leave Chicago’s big chair before scandal reached him. One of McCarthy’s cops shot a teenager named Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014, just 30 seconds after arriving to a scene where dozens of fellow officers already had the knife-wielding teen contained. Officer Jason Van Dyke claimed McDonald had lunged at him, forcing him to fire.
Every cop present backed him up, some going so far as to confiscate surveillance footage from nearby businesses that might have disproved the tale. Emanuel himself stonewalled inquiries into the killing for a year. But after a judge ordered the city to publish dashboard camera video showing Van Dyke and almost his entire chain of command had lied — that in reality, McDonald had been walking away when he was killed — Emanuel canned his celebrity cop boss to blunt the resulting outcry. Van Dyke faces homicide charges, and numerous fellow officers face criminal conspiracy charges for covering up the killing.
The high-gloss public relations work surrounding McCarthy’s Newark tenure had made him the kind of hot commodity another city would want to poach. He wasn’t quite so employable after being fired amid a disgraceful scandal that stats couldn’t salve. But his inability to credibly lead a big-city police department after the McDonald scandal didn’t mean he was done with the media spotlight.
McCarthy spent most of 2016 bashing Emanuel and boosting the conservative backlash against police reform campaigns and the Black Lives Matter movement. Police were backing off from the gritty edge of their responsibilities in response to street protests and high-profile criticism, he said, blaming a new uptick in violent crime indirectly on those who demanded officers honor the civil rights of those they police. The cover-up of the McDonald tapes — which emails indicate Emanuel knew of months before his last re-election and roughly a year before the court order made the truth public — hasn’t been one of the ex-chief’s talking points in that media tour.
McCarthy wasn’t just relaying expert perspective on crime and policing and Chicago to an interested audience. He was beginning to craft a challenge to Emanuel’s regime. In April 2017, less than a year after he told reporters the mayor “didn’t even have the balls” to put his own signature on McCarthy’s formal termination letter, the ex-chief said “a lot of people are encouraging me” to run.
“The problem in Chicago is not the police,” he said, referring to a professional body that now solves barely one murder in four after decades of abuse scandals large and small shattered its relationship to the public. “It’s illegitimate government. It’s politics.” The notion that Chicago’s policework problems stem from political matters not officer conduct appears to be a deeply held conviction. After conducting a listening tour with Chicago community leaders the summer before he was fired, McCarthy recommended a more proactive version of police public relations work in a draft report shelved by the Emanuel administration, according to the defunct local news hub DNAinfo.
Emanuel’s solutions, meanwhile, focus on putting more cops on the street and tweaking the training they receive. Come next year, voters will have at least one other choice than just the incumbent Emanuel or the man who ran his police department for half a decade. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the Democratic Socialist who forced Emanuel into a run-off election last time, opted to run for retiring congressman Luis Gutierrez’s (D-IL) seat instead of challenging the mayor again.
But Troy LaRaviere (D), a prominent Emanuel critic from the education community who heads the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, is already in.
“When McCarthy and I were both working under the corruption and incompetence of the Mayor’s Office,” LaRaviere told ThinkProgress, “one of us stood against Emanuel while the other one stood behind him.”
This piece has been updated with comment from Troy LaRaviere.