On the afternoon of Tuesday, April 19, Aldertrack reporter Claudia Morell received a tip from an activist black pastor that Chicago Police Department representatives had been calling pastors with an update: They would soon release a police dash-cam video depicting a female armed robbery suspect getting shot by a police officer, then aggressively thrown down to the ground and tasered by an officer before her arrest.
The details of how Aldertrack interacted with city public relations staffers is a snapshot of how Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration interacts with the press: We will tell you what we want, when we want. The process does less to clearly inform the public, but instead treats reporters as adversaries that need to be manipulated to control the message of the day.
Despite the hazy details on why the woman was shot and how or if she resisted arrest, or even when the event happened, this was big news. Another police shooting video was potentially explosive, especially on the heels of the release of the Police Accountability Task Force (PATF) Report, which specifically calls out police behavior toward minority suspects.
Quickly, Morell found two other pastors that afternoon who confirmed receiving similar calls from CPD. We also received confirmation from someone familiar with the video that it definitely existed. But we could not pin down the name of the suspect or when the arrest happened. We did learn from our sources that the suspect had since pled guilty to armed robbery and was in prison.
Later in the afternoon, we called Chicago Police News Affairs to confirm the existence of the video and to ask when it would be released. We received no response back that day.
On Wednesday, April 20 we reported the story in our daily 7:30 a.m. email, “Sources: CPD to Release Police-Involved Shooting Video of Female Armed Robbery Suspect”.
Lacking a victim name or a date for the incident, we could not identify the shooting in court records or past news reports. We also lacked enough information to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.
Again, on Wednesday, Morell contacted CPD News Affairs to confirm the existence of the video and to ask when it would be released. That same afternoon, we contacted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s lead press contacts, Kelley Quinn and Adam Collins, with the same questions.
We received no answer from the Mayor’s Office. But at 7:33 p.m., we received an unsigned email from a general CPD News Affairs account, “As you are probably aware by now, we will not be releasing any video’s [sic] to the media today.”
Two days after first reporting a police-related shooting, we had neither an official confirmation or denial from the police or Mayor’s office.
On Wednesday morning, Mayor Emanuel had begun a rollout of his planned changes to policing policy in response to the PATF report. It dominated news coverage for the next two days.
On Thursday the 21st, we repeated the drill with CPD News Affairs. No confirmation, no denial.
On Friday the 22nd, again, we contacted CPD News Affairs in the morning. No response, until 5:46 p.m. when CPD Director of News Affairs Anthony Guglielmisent us an email, “In reference to the 2011 armed robbery incident you asked about, below is the video. We also included all the relevant documents and audio files.”
Five minutes later, CPD News Affairs sent the same information in a press release to all outlets in Chicago. Too late for the early TV news, but likely to be released on the 10:00 p.m. Friday evening broadcast and to hit papers on Saturday. The perfect time to bury a story.
Viewing the videos released by the Police Department, it appears the police shot the victim, Tiffani Jacobs, with cause. Police say she was attempting to run down Officer Matthew Bracken with her car, and he fired at her in defense, although Jacobs disputes that. Whether or not she was handled correctly by police by being thrown to the ground and tasered after the pursuit when she got out of her car, is less defensible. Jacobs had already been shot in the chest, but officers were likely charged up from chasing a suspect they’d been told was armed with a gun.
Early in my career, when I was working on the political side of things in Washington, D.C., and still learning how to talk to reporters, an old hand took me aside, “Remember, the press isn’t your enemy, but they aren’t your friend either.” It’s a complicated mix, that every politician and their staff has to constantly balance.
But Mayor Emanuel and his team has gone too far towards treating the press as enemies. It’s worth remembering: We love this city too. Yet, if Team Emanuel keeps manipulating the press and withholding information, the “cover up” will always be the first thing we report.
It’s clear that Mayor Emanuel is here to stay for at least a while. So take a chance, Team Emanuel. We won’t be your patsies, but if you can’t be wholly transparent, take us into your confidence now and then to explain why, so we can move past reports on how you withhold information. Your attempts to manipulate us are only holding the city back from greatness.