By Mark Konkol | For DNAINFO.COM
FULLER PARK — A city worker who caught Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s press conference at the 47th Street Red Line stop Tuesday stopped me on the sidewalk.
“Man, he really didn’t want to answer your question,” she said, shaking her head.
After a couple frustrating days dealing with the mayor’s City Hall spin machine, it was nice to know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way; even though the mayor made it clear he disagrees with both of us.
I showed up at the Red Line stop to ask the mayor about the glaring lack of proponents for the public’s right to know on his Police Accountability
Specifically, the lack of journalist groups and First Amendment advocates.
That omission was particularly glaring during the discussions that led to a recommendation to keep from the public any videos, audio recordings and reports related to police-involved shootings for up to 90 days that the mayor was quick to support.
Last week, I asked the Society of Professional Journalists, the director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and Jamie Kalven — the independent journalist responsible for the initial push to make public the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting — about that.
Each of them said the absence of advocates for transparency in the release of police videos and reports was a mistake.
Kalven had this to say, “The transparency of public information is central to this kind of upheaval we are in the middle of. It is striking that there are no journalist organizations on the task force. I feel that is an absolutely necessary voice that is absent.”
On Friday, I talked with Attorney General Lisa Madigan — Illinois’ top law enforcement officer with a reputation for being an advocate for the quick release of public information — to ask for her thoughts on Emanuel’s task force and the policy recommendation related to the 90-day release of indisputably public information.
She actually laughed.
“What about FOIA, right?” Madigan said, shrugging her shoulders. “At the minimum you could follow that, right?”
She’s talking about the fact that the task force policy failed to mention the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA for short. That’s the state law requiring the release of videos and reports within five days — at least if the police and City Hall law department don’t cite broad exceptions in law that permit them to keep the records secret, which they almost always do.
Frankly, Madigan didn’t think much of Emanuel’s task force recommendation since it’s not actually an enforceable law.
“It’s not that it’s irrelevant. It’s a recommendation. It’s just another marker out there in terms of overall negotiations [on the release of police video] that’s likely to take place,” Madigan said. “It doesn’t overrule the current law. That law is FOIA, and it should be followed. Not that it is all the time, but it should be. FOIA is one of the reasons that we actually got to see the Laquan McDonald video.”
Madigan said she believes journalists fighting for the public’s right to know should be included in the task force, and in discussions on rules related to the release of public information.
She’s had some experience dealing with the issue of government transparency after the conviction of a certain former Illinois governor with great hair.
“In the aftermath of the [former Gov. Rod] Blagojevich reign of terror, we negotiated reforms to FOIA. We had everybody at the table. I can tell you that is a very difficult table to negotiate with on all sides. I learned through that experience that there’s really no middle ground, but there were things we did to significantly improve FOIA in Illinois,” Madigan said.
“But yes, everybody should be at the table regardless of how difficult it is to negotiate it. That would be the best way to attempt to handle it.”
Obviously, I wanted to talk to the mayor about all this, but frankly his public schedule has been light on question-and-answer sessions. Actually, Emanuel’s public schedule hasn’t included a media availability since the February 10 City Council meeting.
Indeed, the email announcing Emanuel’s presence at Tuesday’s CTA event to announce the installation of more art at “L” stations included this line: “There will be no media availability at this event.”
To be fair, Emanuel will sometimes answer questions from reporters if they corner him, but he’s sometimes difficult to catch.
When the mayor really wants to spout a talking point, he’ll appear on a news talk show.
Or he’ll even personally call a reporter. That’s what Emanuel did around Feb. 16 when he phoned the Tribune to say his task force’s police video policy “helped the city take a bold step forward, in a comprehensive way, to establish the rules going forward that are clear to everybody.”
I could have cornered the mayor when he came to Pullman on Friday, but I didn’t.
I thought I might get a better response if I floated my questions through Emanuel’s spokesman Adam Collins and waited for an answer on Monday.
I was wrong. I don’t know why I did that. Sometimes, I’m an idiot.
I won’t bore you with details of the frustrating back-and-forth and the waiting. Oh, the waiting, just to have a lawyer-approved statement arrive in my email inbox.
Alas, when it comes to dealing with reporters, the ambiguously vague statement is the Emanuel Way.
That’s why I showed up at the CTA event to ask Emanuel why it seemed his administration has no interest in including advocates for the public’s right to know on his hand-picked task force.
Emanuel was ready for me, ticking off a three-point answer that didn’t actually address questions about the need for his task force to hear from the kind of journalist groups that fought to create the federal FOIA statute and had a seat at the table when Madigan made modest reforms to the state law.
“First, it’s an independent task force. I named them. They went off to do their work,” Emanuel said.
I didn’t ask the mayor about that, but he must have had a reason for publicly pointing out that his handpicked task force is independent of his influence.
“Second, is [the task force] actually did consult people that brought the lawsuit,” the mayor said, referring to journalists who launched the court fight against City Hall that lead to the release of the Laquan McDonald video.
I asked the mayor about giving advocates for the public’s right to know a seat at the negotiating table, not whether “people that brought the lawsuit” got a courtesy interview. But, if that did happen — and there isn’t a public list of who the Task Force spoke with privately to prove it — the task force deserves a little credit for seeking the point of view of at least one freelance journalist in Chicago.
“And third, I would say … it’s not only videotape. It’s also audio and written material. So, it’s comprehensive in its nature and the way its approached,” Emanuel said. “And then the task force has working groups in each area and then consults with a wide range of people. In fact, the people that brought the lawsuit related to Laquan McDonald were consulted. So, I would just say there’s a broad range …”
I thought Emanuel might have misunderstood my question, so I asked again. Stressing that it appears he doesn’t want to include groups like the Society of Professional Journalists on the task force. But he told me I was wrong about that.
“I don’t think I misunderstood. I think I addressed the question,” the mayor said. “I think that we have the right approach with … a working group beyond the task force that takes in a lot of opinions and then addresses it. I think the first policy addresses the core shortcomings and does it in a comprehensive fashion. That’s the way I look at it.”
Well, Mr. Mayor, the city worker and I respectfully disagree.
Here’s why this is important: This tumultuous moment in our city’s history is clearly our first, best shot to repair damage caused by generations of government policies that helped keep police misconduct secret, jailed the wrongfully convicted and cost taxpayers $893 million in civil court settlements, according to data compiled by the Better Government Association.
This is our opportunity to restore credibility of a Police Department that most Chicagoans say they don’t trust.
Journalists like me believe that when a police officer shoots a citizen, the public deserves to immediately see the video, listen to the audio and read the initial police reports of how things went down.
People like us believe that complete transparency will remove the temptation for police to attempt to cover up the truth by filing false reports — an allegation that has been made against officers at the scene the night Laquan McDonald was killed — and even help restore trust in the police department.
And, believe it or not, a lot of Chicagoans who have been lied to, mistreated and racially profiled by members of the Police Department agree that there’s no good reason the public should have to wait 90 days to see a video or read a report when the incident involves a public servant shooting a citizen on a public street.
Why doesn’t the Mayor Emanuel think it’s worth the effort to make more of an effort to ensure people who advocate for complete transparency have a seat at the table as part of his task force charged with recommending policies that restore trust in the police department?
I have absolutely no idea.
And Rahm won’t tell us.
y Task Force.