In a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office released some 3,000 pages of emails Friday, relating to the mayor’s management of the Laquan McDonald crisis.
The documents were released to NBC5 Investigates, in response to an open records request filed under the Freedom of Information Act.
That’s right—3,000 pages of emails.
On New Year’s Eve.
The documents actually reveal a scant few messages to or from the mayor himself. (He’s identified as REMOC—Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago.) But what they do show is a micro-managed crisis, where even the supposedly independent Independent Police Review Authority was apprising the mayor of developments, and having their press statements drafted at City Hall.
While there is consistent back and forth in the days and weeks after McDonald was shot 16 times by police officer Jason Van Dyke October 20, 2014, the floodgates open after reporter Jamie Kalven writes an article in Feburary for Slate, entitled “16 Shots”, where he details McDonald’s autopsy results.
On February 23rd, the office proposes this response to inquiries: “All police involved shootings are investigated by the Independent Police Review Authority and it would be inappropriate for us to comment while their investigation is ongoing.” Of course, while IPRA is doing its independent inquiry, the same press office is crafting the police agency’s public statements as well.
The documents reveal that in early March, attorneys for McDonald’s family wrote a letter to the city Law Department, demanding a settlement of $16 million.
“I submit the graphic dash cam video will have a powerful impact on any jury and the Chicago community as a whole,” they wrote. “This case will undoubtedly bring a microscope of national attention to the shooting itself, as well as the City’s pattern, practice, and procedures in rubber stamping fatal police shootings of African Americans as ‘justified’.”
The letter notes that an autopsy revealed bullet fragments in McDonald’s teeth, showing that he was down on the pavement as shots continued. And associated affidavits from the managers of a nearby Burger King attest to a mysterious gap in their surveillance videos, after they were examined by Chicago Police.
Two weeks later, as the settlement talks continued, the emails reveal that the City asked pointed questions about McDonald and his family, including whether his father acknowledged paternity, how far McDonald got in school, and whether he suffered from any identified disabilities.
“His criminal history lists 26 arrests,” city lawyers write in that email. “Was Laquan associated with any street gangs? Was Laquan’s family/supporting adults aware that (he) was charged with numerous narcotics offenses, battery, resisting, obstructing, reckless conduct, agg. Battery to a peace officer, assault, alcohol, to minor offenses?”
When a $5 million settlement was finally reached, the emails show that Mayor’s office once again drafted a carefully worded statement for the Independent Police Review Authority.
“I spoke with a few folks already, and I think we should point any inquiries to IPRA, who could give the below statement from (IPRA chief) Scott Ando,” spokesman Adam Collins writes. And then the statement follows: “The City of Chicago takes every incident in which an officer fires their weapon extremely seriously, which is why this agency, an independent, civilian organization, investigates each and every one of them.”
Contacted Thursday, Collins insisted that coordination with city agencies on press statements should be viewed as completely separate from IPRA’s investigative work, “which our office is not involved in.”
“Agency PIOs and commissioners frequently work with liaisons in our press office for thoughts and collaboration on public events, press releases, public statements, speeches, City Council hearings, and other announcements,” Collins said in a statement. “By the same token, as you continue looking through the emails you’ll find many instances in which agencies, PIOs and commissioners simply give the press office a heads up about media interviews after the fact as an FYI.”
Indeed, the emails do show back and forth with Sally Daly, spokesman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, on the wording of the statement. Responding to inquiries Thursday, Daly said she also communicates with other public agencies regularly in working on joint press releases.
“(Adam) Collins sent me an email specifically looking to ensure that the language that they were proposing to release about the ongoing criminal investigation was accurate/appropriate,” she said. “That would have been the only input from our office.”
Some of the observations from the press office were at times, extremely candid.
Referring to Sun Times reporter Fran Spielman on April 14, one staffer wrote: “Fran was badgering (corporation counsel) Steve (Patton) down in council wabout why we won’t release the McDonald video,” she wrote. “We should get ahead of this and say something like the following from Department of Law: ‘We fully plan on releasing the video after the federal and state investigations have been completed’.”
Again, Emanuel himself is rarely quoted, or even referenced in his staffers’ messages. At one point, spokesman Collins answers a question about a statement from the mayor by simply noting, “I’m not sure we want to insert him into any more than he already is.”
At times, the emails provided a spotlight on the extent to which management of the mayor’s office extends into the City Council, which is supposedly a separate branch of Chicago government. On December 1, the day Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired, staffers exchanged a flurry of emails, proposing language for a reaction statement by 34th Ward Alderman Carrie Austin.
While heavily redacted, one email which appears to be a draft of the Austin statement, calls the Mayor’s actions “a step in the right direction.”
Asked about the Austin emails, mayoral spokesman Shannon Breymaier suggested such drafts are not unusual.
“Aldermen occasionally request that our office provide them with input or assistance in drafting language or statements, particularly on issues on which they work closely with the Mayor,” she said. “Although our office provides assistance when requested, we do not approve Aldermanic statements-the final decision about what an Alderman says or does not say up to that Alderman.”
In one bit of good news for the Mayor, the documents show that the White House was keeping tabs on the unfolding crisis--even offering words of comfort.
On December 2, the day after McCarthy was fired, Obama aide Desiree Barnes wrote to advise that during a CNN interview with the President, there were “no questions on you at all.”