The Murder of Laquan McDonald Looms over Rahm Emanuel’s Confirmation

A police dashcam video showing an officer repeatedly shooting Laquan McDonald, 17, was not released for more than a year.,

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Emanuel, a former mayor of Chicago, is questioned about the police killing of a Black teenager in 2014.

Rahm Emanuel, then the mayor of Chicago, in 2018.Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Oct. 20, 2021Updated 12:59 p.m. ET

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, President Biden’s nominee for United States ambassador to Japan, faced a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday — seven years to the day after a white city police officer murdered Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, prompting protests and accusations of a cover-up.

“There’s not a day or a week that has gone by in the last seven years that I haven’t thought about this and thought about it,” said Mr. Emanuel, who cited reforms he instituted at the department after the killing.

But he took responsibility for not going far enough, and acknowledged that he greatly underestimated what he described as the widespread and justifiable mistrust of city government by the city’s Black community.

“I made a number of changes that dealt with oversight, accountability,” he said. “And it is clear to me the changes were inadequate to the level of distrust. They were on the best marginal, I thought I was addressing the issue, and I clearly missed the level of distrust and skepticism that existed, and that’s on me.”

Mr. Emanuel faced questions over his handling of the McDonald case, particularly the delayed release of a police dashboard camera video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke firing his weapon 16 times at Mr. McDonald, 17, on Oct. 20, 2014.

The video showed that Mr. McDonald was carrying a knife, walking and veering away from the officer when he was shot. The video was not released for more than a year, and only after a judge intervened.

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the committee’s chairman, addressed the issue in his opening statement after welcoming Mr. Emanuel and his family to the Capitol.

“As you are aware, today is also the anniversary of the murder of Laquan McDonald,” Mr. Menendez said. “My heart goes out to his family on this day. I believe all of us share that sentiment and to so many other victims and their families as we work to deliver meaningful reforms to the Black and brown communities who endure injustices every day.”

Opinion on Mr. Emanuel varies widely in his hometown, but bitterness remains over the long delay of the release of the police video. The city agreed to pay Mr. McDonald’s family a $5 million settlement, and the officer was eventually convicted of a second-degree murder charge.

Mr. Emanuel, 61, who has repeatedly defended his actions, said he never saw the footage until it was released publicly, and told the committee he believed it would have been improper for him to intervene in the case by prejudicing investigators and potential jurors.

When “a politician unilaterally makes a decision in the middle of investigation you politicize the investigation,” he said.

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A still from Chicago police dashcam video showing Laquan McDonald, 17, moments before he was fatally shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014.Credit…Chicago Police Department, via Associated Press

The episode seriously weakened his political standing in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, and might have played in a role in his decision not to seek a third term.

Mr. Emanuel, a brash and hard-driving former Democratic congressman from Illinois who served as President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, is expected to be confirmed, with the support of several Republicans, including Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

But several high-profile progressives, including Representatives Mondaire Jones and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri, have called on Senate Democrats to reject his nomination over his record on race relations and policing during his eight years as Chicago’s mayor.

Mr. Jones wrote on Twitter Wednesday before the hearing that the former mayor’s behavior disqualified him for government service.

Mr. Emanuel, who helped hammer through the Affordable Care Act and financial rescue measures during his tenure in the West Wing, has met with senators during the past week, focusing mostly on trade and security issues, according to administration officials.

The former mayor, who spearheaded the Democratic take back of the House in 2006, has the support of the two Illinois senators, Richard J. Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both Democrats.

When pressed by reporters on Tuesday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki — who worked closely with Mr. Emanuel during the Obama administration — did not say if Mr. Biden had discussed the McDonald case with him.

The president “knew his record, longstanding, prior to the nomination,” Ms. Psaki said.

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