By Bill Ruthhart and John Byrne and Hal Dardick
Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to reset how he's handled the most severe crisis of his tenure, giving a determined and at times emotional speech to the City Council on Wednesday in which he pledged to finally end Chicago's entrenched practice of police brutality and apologized for failing to fix the deep-seated issue sooner.
The 40-minute address served as a high-profile platform for Emanuel to again offer a list of the steps he's taken so far, but also tackle head-on a complicated series of challenges surrounding race relations and a deeply rooted lack of trust many minorities in Chicago have in the officers who patrol their communities.
"We are here today because Chicago is facing a defining moment on the issues of crime and policing, and the even larger issues of truth, justice and race," Emanuel said at the start of his speech in a quiet City Council chamber. "We can either be defined by what we have failed to do -- or what we choose to do."
The response to Emanuel's promises of swift action and a better police force, however, reflected the credibility gap the mayor faces on some of the very topics he raised. Normally compliant aldermen offered little more than cautious optimism, and hundreds of protesters who took to the streets outside City Hall dismissed the remarks and continued to call on him to resign.
Emanuel noted that he raised politically difficult topics a big-city mayor doesn't typically touch, but his track record undercut the message at times.
He condemned a police department "code of silence" that encourages cover-ups, though the mayor and his administration's lawyers tried to wipe out a jury verdict that found such a code exists. The mayor insisted the city needed "better oversight of our police officers," though he's defended the department's practices while signing off on millions of dollars in police brutality settlements. And Emanuel said the statistics on how few officers get disciplined for excessive force "defy credibility," though he's backed the police oversight board and endorsed a police union contract that makes it difficult to discipline officers.
Also contributing to the air of skepticism is the scattershot response the mayor has offered since Nov. 24, when he released the police video of the Laquan McDonald shooting. Emanuel initially characterized white Officer Jason Van Dyke's decision to shoot black teen McDonald as the actions of one bad cop before later saying his police department needed "complete and total reform." He stood by former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy before firing him. He objected to a Justice Department civil rights investigation before welcoming one. And he fought the release of the shooting video before admitting he was wrong to do so after a judge forced his hand.
The mayor did not address the twists and turns of how he has handled the controversy, instead expressing his hope the city can make a new start. "This is not the Chicago we know and love. This is not the police department we believe in and trust to protect our families and our neighborhoods. This is not who we are. And this will not stand."
After watching intently from the first row of the City Council chamber's gallery, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called Emanuel's speech "an impassioned address on the extreme duress" of Chicago. Echoing a common refrain, the longtime civil rights leader said the speech itself doesn't mean much at the moment.
"The word must become flesh," Jackson said, "and we'll know the value of it then."
Emanuel addressed the need to ensure justice within the Chicago Police Department, changing a police culture of corruption and rebuilding communities where crime and distrust of cops has become an all-too-familiar theme.
Tying those three themes together throughout the speech was the story of McDonald, the 17-year-old who was shot 16 times in the street by Van Dyke. Prosecutors charged the officer with murder, but not until 13 months after the shooting and just hours before Emanuel released the police video of the shooting under a judge's order.
The mayor apologized for the McDonald shooting "that happened on my watch."
"If we're going to fix it, I want you to understand it's my responsibility with you," Emanuel said. "But if we're going to begin the healing process, the first step in that journey is my step, and I'm sorry."
While Emanuel offered apologies and a blunt assessment of the city's problems, his speech also was a political one designed more to assuage Chicagoans' anger over the McDonald controversy than one filled with specific plans to overhaul the ingrained problems in the police department.
"Nothing, nothing can excuse what happened to Laquan McDonald," Emanuel said. "Our city has been down this road before. We have seen fatal police shootings and other forms of abuse and corruption. We took corrective measures, but those measures never measured up to the challenge."
The mayor talked about many Chicagoans' lack of trust in police officers, and reiterated his argument that elected officials and community leaders have a responsibility "to earn back that trust and to change that narrative," and said there's a need for police to build relationships with young African-Americans.
The mayor became most emotional when he mentioning parents who have lost children to gun violence and discussing the need for respect between officers and young black men. Emanuel talked about a meeting he had Saturday at Precious Blood Church on the West Side, where he shared sandwiches with a dozen young men who had been in trouble with the law.
"I asked them, tell me one thing I need to know. And rather than tell me something, one young man asked me a simple question that gets to the core of what we're talking about," Emanuel said. "He said, 'Do you think the police would ever treat you the way they treat me? And the answer is no, and that's wrong."
The visibly upset mayor then raised his voice and pounded his fist on the lectern.
"That has to change in this city. That has to come to an end and end now!" Emanuel said. "No citizen is a second-class citizen in the city of Chicago! If my children are treated one way, every child is treated the same way."
Emanuel's mention of a double standard drew the only round of applause.
'This isn't Mayberry'
Aldermen had mixed reactions. Most have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for victims of police brutality while demanding little change in how the department operates, and all have come under fire in the McDonald controversy.
"This is something we haven't heard before," said Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th, a frequent Emanuel critic. "It talked about some of the core and key things that are problems here in the city of Chicago, and I think that's a very big step."
But Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, said the mayor still has a lot of work to do.
"(Emanuel) is going to be judged by his actions, not his words," Sawyer said. "So, we hope the ensuing actions will be substantive and will show real meaning to make that connection back with the community so we can establish that trust."
The City Council discussion that followed the speech illustrated how the pull-in-the-same-direction note the mayor hit could have a tough time gaining long-term traction in a notoriously balkanized city.
Ald. Anthony Napolitano, from the Far Northwest Side 41st Ward that's crowded with cops and other city workers, pointed to Chicago's violence and said it's not fair to pillory police officers for trying to deal with the situation.
"You have to remember we're not dealing with just a normal city. This isn't Mayberry. This is a tough city," said Napolitano, a former police officer. "There's a war going on out there. And a lot of you will pretend like you've seen it or you've read it, or you've watched it on TV. But a lot of you have not been out there and have not seen it."
That prompted a response from West Side Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th. "You know what? You're damn right this is not Mayberry," Ervin said. "I don't know where it is that you may be looking at, but everybody deserves to be treated with respect. Just because someone commits a criminal act doesn't give anybody the right to abuse them.
"Unless you're committed to making some changes, go home," Ervin said. "Come to the West Side of Chicago. Come to the South Side of Chicago, and you will see why folks are upset."
Ald. Deb Mell, 33rd, spoke about her relatively affluent North Side upbringing while urging her colleagues to help each other experience different parts of the city. "I'm from the North Side, and growing up we were taught don't go to the South Side. Don't go to the West Side. And that is absolutely wrong," she said. "What I would like to do in the future is go visit, go visit your ward offices and hang out in your ward and see what happens on the South Side and the West Side. And I invite you to come over to our side of the city."
Far South Side Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, followed shortly after Mell by blasting Chicagoans who haven't opened their eyes earlier to the fact African-American neighborhoods have long been badly treated by police in a way that is only now getting attention because it was caught on a video recording.
"Ladies and gentlemen, if you've been living in a bubble, shame on you," Beale said. "We've been living with reality in our community. We've been living with situations like this forever. And until you see it, you don't believe it. Well, now you see it. Believe it."
Beale said it's apparent the "bell finally went off" with the mayor on the issue of police brutality.
"If it had not been for that video, we would not be standing here talking about this today," Beale said. "I'm sorry for what happened to that gentleman, that young man, but we've been talking about these things in this city for decades and it has fallen on deaf ears. And I thank the mayor for finally saying we have to change this corrupt system in this city. We got to change it."
'We don't want your apology!'
The narrative of Emanuel's speech and his urgency to fix the city's police problems also exposed the mayor's prior lack of action on the issue.
"We have to be honest with ourselves about the issue," Emanuel said. "Each time when we confronted it in the past, Chicago only went far enough to clear our consciences so we could move on."
That Band-Aid approach was evident in January 2013 when, at Emanuel's request, the City Council voted to approve $33 million in police conduct settlements. At the time, Emanuel sought to reassure citizens that the city's bleak history of lax police oversight came to an end when he was elected mayor, adding that McCarthy had "put different rules in place, different staffing in place in internal affairs."
On Wednesday, Emanuel also brought up the department's so-called "code of silence," in which officers cover up the wrongdoing of their colleagues. In condemning the practice, Emanuel referenced a frequent complaint from officers -- that witnesses refuse to come forward. "We cannot ask citizens in crime-ravaged neighborhoods to break the code of silence if we continue to allow a code of silence to exist within our own police department," he said.
It was the mayor and his administration's lawyers, however, who tried to wipe out a 2012 verdict involving an off-duty Chicago cop who beat a defenseless female bartender. The city offered to pay the woman the $850,000 the jury awarded her in exchange for her support of a motion to vacate the decision that the Police Department had a practice of protecting its own. The judge in the case refused to vacate the finding.
Emanuel's lack of action was on the minds of hundreds of protesters who marched outside City Hall. Among them was Angelina Espindola, who dismissed the mayor's show of emotion and called him out for backtracking on police corruption as the McDonald controversy escalated.
" 'Sorry' isn't going to bring those kids back," said Espindola, 28, who lives in Pilsen. "All (Emanuel) is doing is talking. Now he's doing it because everyone's paying attention."
As protesters streamed around City Hall, through the financial district and up Michigan Avenue, one chant they repeated summed up their continued dissatisfaction with the mayor.
"We don't want your apology!" they shouted. "We want your resignation!"
Tribune reporter Dawn Rhodes contributed.
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