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The Chicago Police Department's dress-blue graduation ceremony was winding down at Navy Pier on Tuesday when Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel hurried off the stage for some jolting news: The case against "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett, meticulously pieced together by more than a dozen detectives, had been abruptly dropped by prosecutors.
Both Johnson and Emanuel were infuriated, not just because the charges were dismissed but because prosecutors had not informed investigators first. Johnson said the decision allowed Smollett to hide behind a secret deal. The mayor was more blunt: "This sends an unambiguous message that there is no accountability."
The relationship between the Police Department and the state's attorney's office has always been uneasy and often tense as investigators gather evidence and prosecutors decide whether it's enough for charges. Over the years, Chicago detectives have complained their work has resulted in too few defendants being charged or the charges being reduced or, as in this case, dismissed altogether.
But the Smollett case now threatens to deepen the distrust and suspicion.
"It could be that there was some kind of reasoning, but that needs to be shared with the public now and particularly with police, who spent so much time on this case," said veteran defense attorney Tom Needham, a former prosecutor who once worked as general counsel for the Police Department. "I would imagine their confidence in the state's attorney's office is going to be shaken a bit."
Officers interviewed by the Tribune were not as measured, with a detective calling the decision to dismiss the case "reprehensible." He said officers were especially "hot" because of the painstaking review of video surveillance that helped solve the case. As a result, he added, the state's attorney's office "can't be trusted."
While prosecutors insisted that the charges of staging a racial attack were dropped in return for community service, Smollett insisted there was no deal and he had been exonerated. While that contention was immediately disputed by prosecutors, there was no backing down by Smollett or his attorneys.
"(You) let Smollett go on about his divisive narrative," one officer complained. "Now you've got this narrative of racial crime and division."
The Smollett case was sensational from the moment the actor and singer reported on Jan. 29 that he was attacked in Streeterville by two men who placed a noose around his neck, beat him, and yelled racist and homophobic slurs. Smollett said they also yelled, "This is MAGA country," a reference to President Donald Trump's campaign slogan of "Make America Great Again."
Within a month, his story had unraveled after a large team of detectives retraced the steps of Smollett's would-be attackers: two brothers captured by cameras in the area at the time Smollett reported the assault. The brothers were arrested and gave statements implicating Smollett, saying he hired them to stage the assault so he could boost his salary along with his profile in the entertainment industry.
Johnson said neither he nor anyone on his staff was told about the decision to dismiss those charges at a court hearing Tuesday that was not publicized by the state's attorney's office. "We found out about it when you all did," he told reporters.
Adding to the confusion - and further launching conspiracy theories - is the fact that the case has been sealed by a judge so none of the evidence can be seen by the public. No explanation was given.
Also, in the early days of the investigation, State's Attorney Kim Foxx had reached out to Johnson on behalf of a politically connected attorney who said Smollett's family was concerned about leaks. Foxx agreed to ask Johnson to turn the case over to the FBI, something Johnson said he never considered. Foxx recused herself Feb. 13 because of those contacts, a week before her office approved charges.
First Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Magats took over the case and defended the deal. "The bottom line is, we stand behind the investigation, we stand behind the decision to charge him," said Magats, a career prosecutor who's been with the office for nearly three decades. "The fact that (Smollett) feels that we have exonerated him, we have not. I can't make it any clearer than that."
Needham said it is not unusual for prosecutors to downgrade charges, but typically this is done with notification to both victims and police. And very often, a person is asked to acknowledge wrongdoing as part of the deal.
"Why was there urgency to this?" Needham said. "Why was there not a requirement that Mr. Smollett publicly admit that what he did was wrong? Normally when you get these agreements, the person who is accused says something in court because it's required or just out of common decency. ... But they have to answer these questions. They need to assure people that this wasn't done because of his fame or his money."
Area Central Detective Cmdr. Edward Wodnicki, whose detectives led the Smollett investigation, said it is "shocking" that the state's attorney's office did not discuss the decision ahead of time. He agreed this was highly unusual. He also worried about the message the state's attorney was sending.
"To get to this point now opens the door for people to say that we didn't do the job right," Wodnicki said at Navy Pier. "It is absolutely a punch in the gut. We worked very, very closely throughout our three-week investigation to get to the point where we arrested the offender."
One former top Chicago police official acknowledged that the relationship between the department and the state's attorney's office is not always smooth. "It's like a pendulum," said John Escalante, a former interim Chicago police superintendent.
Generally, he said, any police department is supposed to foster a working relationship with prosecutors. But the decision in the Smollett case "really is concerning," he said.
"This seemed like a very solid case, really supported by cameras. Cameras don't lie," said Escalante, the chief of police at Northeastern Illinois University since 2016. "The complete dropping of charges was mind-boggling."
Chicago Tribune's William Lee contributed.