In Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Surveillance State, Controlling the Data Is Key

In the most surveilled U.S. metropolis, the police killing of Laquan McDonald was extensively recorded. But political power is now about who controls the digital traces — and their exposure or erasure.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks to the media, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, in Chicago. Faced with growing calls for federal intervention after a white officer fatally shot a black teen, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday the city would welcome a Justice Department investigation of “systemic issues” in the Chicago police department. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks to the media, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, in Chicago. Faced with growing calls for federal intervention after a white officer fatally shot a black teen, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday the city would welcome a Justice Department investigation of “systemic issues” in the Chicago police department. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) Photo: M. Spencer Green/AP

POWER CIRCULATES DIFFERENTLY in the digital age. It’s all about controlling the digital traces — collecting, mining, sharing, exposing, delaying, or erasing the data. Inevitably, some handling will occur in ordinary politics. But when the data are manipulated in order to obstruct criminal justice or steal an election, then it’s no longer ordinary politics; it becomes a cover-up.

With each new day, there is growing evidence of a cover-up in Chicago.

First, late on Friday night, December 4, 2015, Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, released hundreds of pages of police reports from the October 2014 Laquan McDonald murder — including false statements by police officers who were at the scene of the crime. The data dump came at such a late hour that the Chicago Tribune was not able to report on the massive discrepancies between those statements and the dashcam video of McDonald’s death until an article posted early Saturday morning, at 1:25 a.m., while most of the city was asleep.

Then, in a Saturday op-ed simultaneously placed in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, Emanuel offered a different story than he had previously about why he did not view the dashcam video in the months before its November 2015 release. In an earlier interview with Politico, Emanuel said that he didn’t watch the dashcam footage because if he had seen it, reporters and the public would be asking why they didn’t get to see it too. But in his op-ed, Emanuel wrote that he didn’t watch it “because my own emotions should not interfere with criminal investigations.”

The discrepancy is striking in itself. It also goes against everything Emanuel had previously said about the fact that he does not interfere with or control the timing of criminal investigations. Is the mayor now suggesting that he could have pushed the state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, to charge Officer Jason Van Dyke in November 2014, in the middle of his heated reelection campaign?

The timing of the op-eds also raises suspicion. They went online earlier Friday afternoon and were in print Saturday morning, just in time to wash out the late Friday data dump. Once again, it seems, the city’s leader was gaming the data flow.

The fact is, the digital traces were everywhere in the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by Officer Van Dyke. The scene was extensively recorded from multiple angles. At least five dashcam videos — maybe eight — filmed the shooting. Private security cameras were running as well, with at least 12 camera angles from inside and outside the Southwest Side Burger King next door.

Everything was digitally captured. But then, the data were suppressed for 13 months, and would likely have been suppressed indefinitely if a state court had not compelled their release under the state’s open records act.

You might think this is paradoxical. After all, Mayor Emanuel has been a champion of total awareness and has helped turn Chicago into the most surveilled metropolis in the United States. Back in 2013, he boasted that Chicago had thousands of public and private surveillance cameras in place to protect city residents: “I will say, as I always have, because we have continued to put cameras throughout the city for security … purposes, they serve an important function for the city in providing the type of safety on a day-to-day basis — not just for big events like a marathon, but day-to-day purposes.”

In February 2011, the ACLU estimated that Chicago had around 10,000 surveillance cameras. In November 2011, Emanuel supported the installation of 1,700 additional Chicago Transit Authority security cameras. He also introduced an ordinance, during the Occupy movement in advance of the G8 and NATO summits, that included installing more surveillance cameras. As of April 2015, Chicago had “an integrated system of 22,000 cameras citywide,” which transmit their footage to the Chicago Crime Prevention Center. As the New York Times noted, “One legacy of Rahm Emanuel is digitally clear. Security cameras will follow us like a bad credit rating.”

But in our digital age, seeing, monitoring, and recording the digital footprints is quite different from sharing, releasing, revealing, or publicizing the data. We are all exposed today, most of us out of our own desires and passions. The political struggle, though, is over who controls those digital traces. It’s not a question of privacy anymore, since we so often crave publicity; it is a question of controlling the data flows.

This may explain why the city’s leaders apparently did everything in their power to suppress the existing digital traces of the Laquan McDonald murder. They want total awareness and constant surveillance, but not truly for “safety on a day-to-day basis” — they were not concerned that a first-degree murder suspect was free for 13 months — rather for tightening the grip on political power.

Continuing, on Monday, December 7, 2015, the wheels of justice all of a sudden began to turn in a separate, 14-month-old police killing — revealing just how fast the state’s prosecutor can move a case when no one obstructs Illinois’ open records act.

Seeing the writing on the wall following Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama’s order to turn over the dashcam evidence in the McDonald case, Mayor Emanuel reversed course and decided to release the dashcam video of police officer George Hernandez firing five shots and fatally wounding Ronald Johnson, also in October 2014. With lightening speed, State’s Attorney Alvarez declined to prosecute Officer Hernandez; moments later, the city released the full video to the public.

It all happened in a matter of hours, dizzyingly fast once again, the minute the digital traces were going to be exposed — demonstrating that it certainly does not take over a year to decide these cases.

Then, on Wednesday, December 9, 2015, we learn that Emanuel and the city’s top lawyer, Steven Patton, buried a 73-page internal report calling for major reforms of the police department by timing its release just before Christmas 2014 — and then never followed up on the report. It now seems that City Hall in effect obstructed former police superintendent Garry McCarthy’s efforts at police reform. The timing of the data dump is again telling — as is the fact that Mayor Emanuel is now calling for the same kind of task force review that was already conducted a year ago.

Who controls the digital traces and their dissemination or erasure — that’s what this is all about. A recent poll showed that if Mayor Emanuel hadn’t delayed the release of the Laquan McDonald dashcam video until after the runoff election in April 2015, he would not have been reelected. The problem, it seems, is not that Emanuel has now lost the public’s confidence, rather it’s that he never genuinely had it to begin with.

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