Police and schools crises undermine Emanuel’s legitimacy

Mayor Rahm Emanuel answers questions at a news conference on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, after he introduced Sharon Fairley, IPRA's new chief administrator. Interim Chicago Police Superintendent John Escalante stands next to him.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel answers questions at a news conference on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, after he introduced Sharon Fairley, IPRA's new chief administrator. Interim Chicago Police Superintendent John Escalante stands next to him.

On Monday, Gov. Bruce Rauner criticized Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handling of the city’s police accountability crisis and backed a measure to allow voters to recall the mayor. On Tuesday, Emanuel’s counterpunch ­– holding Rauner responsible for the looming disaster in the city’s schools ­– brought the mayor’s political crisis full circle.

There are two areas where taxpayers absolutely depend on the city to provide basic services: public safety and schools. Emanuel’s problem – the reason the legitimacy of his mayoralty is under siege – is that he has failed in both areas.

His failure to go beyond the reassuring rhetoric of “accountability” and “community policing” to seriously address police misconduct has led to an ongoing chorus calling for his resignation. Like the Wizard of Oz, the great invincible Rahm has run out of steam, and we now see the little man pulling levers behind the curtain.

A series of missteps on Emanuel’s part continued Tuesday, as he said it’s “not possible” that his own administration’s law department has upheld the police “code of silence” (he also rejected calls for an investigation of the department). That followed one attorney’s resignation, after a judge ruled he had concealed evidence regarding the killing of Darius Pinex. According to insiders, it does not appear to be an isolated example.

Emanuel’s record on police accountability is mixed. In his first term, he agreed to publicly release civilian complaints against cops, and he apologized for police torture under Commander Jon Burge and established a reparations fund for its victims.

But he denied the existence of a code of silence – until the storm surrounding the release of videos of Laquan McDonald’s killing forced him to acknowledge reality. Since then, we’ve had a steady diet of news conference pronouncements, like a new policy on mental health crises that sounds a lot like the last policy.

As the latest dispute shows yet again, Emanuel can’t seem to kick his compulsion to spin every story to his advantage. But until he does, Chicago will be denied the full accounting of wrongs needed to begin to move forward.

As he struggles to gain footing on this issue, a potential disaster for the city’s schools is just around the corner.

Aside from extending the school day, Emanuel’s main accomplishment in education – it’s really the essence of his education policy – has been closing neighborhood schools and opening charters. Meanwhile, the city’s schools have been hit by one devastating budget cut after another. Students, parents and teachers are reeling.

Emanuel bungled his school policy options badly last year, getting nothing out of Springfield and blowing off the chance for a one-year contract extension with the teachers union. Now thousands of teacher layoffs are slated for the next month or so. And a strike is a definite possibility.

A mayor who can’t police the city streets without major scandal or keep teachers in the classroom doesn’t have much to recommend him. As I’ve argued, Emanuel’s longtime political commitments are fundamentally detrimental to Chicago’s communities. We can only hope that given the mayor’s current political predicament, the prospect of progress on police reform has more potential today than it has in a long time.

And maybe the teachers can push the discussion about taxing the rich further along. There’s almost a code of silence around that among our political elite.

A crisis of public safety, a crisis of education – this is more than Emanuel’s crisis. This is a local outbreak of the long-term crisis of a political and economic system that can’t fund basic services adequately, that doesn’t value students or teachers; of a criminal justice system that can’t stand the light of day, that uses police to ride herd on communities that have sustained historic and ongoing inequities.

Much more than he represents us, Emanuel represents that system. Its crisis, at least for now, is his crisis. And for now, it’s our opportunity – if we can make something of it.