The cover-up that began 13 months ago when a Chicago police officer executed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on a busy street might well have included highly ranked officials who ordered subordinates to conceal information. But the conspiracy of concealment exposed last week when the city, under court order, finally released a video of the shooting could also be seen as a kind of autonomic response from a historically corrupt law enforcement agency that is well versed in the art of hiding misconduct, brutality — and even torture.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel demonstrated a willful ignorance when he talked about the murder charges against the police officer who shot Mr. McDonald, seeking to depict the cop as a rogue officer. He showed a complete lack of comprehension on Tuesday when he explained that he had decided to fire his increasingly unpopular police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, not because he failed in his leadership role, but because he had become “a distraction.”
Mr. Emanuel’s announcement that he had appointed a task force that will review the Police Department’s accountability procedures is too little, too late. The fact is, his administration, the Police Department and the prosecutor’s office have lost credibility on this case. Officials must have known what was on that video more than a year ago, and yet they saw no reason to seek a sweeping review of the police procedures until this week.
The Justice Department, which is already looking at the McDonald killing, needs to investigate every aspect of this case, determine how the cover-up happened and charge anyone found complicit. The investigation needs to begin with the Police Department’s news release of Oct. 21, 2014, which incorrectly states that Mr. McDonald was shot while approaching police officers with a knife. A dash cam video that was likely available within hours of the shooting on Oct. 20 shows Mr. McDonald veering away from the officer when he was shot 16 times, mainly while lying on the pavement. Why does the video completely contradict that press release?
The question of what pedestrians and motorists said about what they saw that night is also at issue. Lawyers for the McDonald family say that the police threatened motorists with arrest if they did not leave the scene and actually interviewed people whose versions of the events were consistent with the video, but did not take statements. Last week, a manager at a Burger King restaurant near the shooting scene told The Chicago Tribune that more than an hour of surveillance video disappeared from the restaurant’s surveillance system after police officers gained access to it. (NBC5 News first reported this in May.)
The dash cam video might have been buried forever had lawyers and journalists not been tipped off to its existence. Mr. Emanuel, who was running for re-election at the time of the shooting, fought to keep it from becoming public, arguing that releasing it might taint a federal investigation.
Justice Department officials, however, said on Tuesday that the department did not ask the city to withhold the video from the public because of its investigation. That makes this whole episode look like an attempt by the city, the police and prosecutors to keep the video under wraps, knowing the political problems it would most likely create.
Update: Dec. 2, 2015
This editorial has been updated to indicate that the Burger King manager’s statement on the missing security video was first reported by NBC5 News.
The Editorial Board, “The Chicago Police Scandal”, December 1, 2015, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/02/opinion/the-chicago-police-scandal.html?_r=1