The Chicago Police Scandal

Rahm Emanuel Credit Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times Media, via Associated Press

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

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Chicago releases dash-cam video of fatal shooting after cop charged with murder

Jason Meisner, Jeremy Gorner and Steve Schmadeke Chicago Tribune

Hours after a Chicago police officer was ordered held without bond on a first-degree murder charge, the city released a shocking police dash-cam video that captured the white officer opening fire on an African American teen on a Southwest Side street, striking him 16 times and killing him.

The video is about six minutes long and appears to show 17-year-old Laquan McDonald running down the middle of Pulaski Road near 41st Street when Officer Jason Van Dyke, standing next to his SUV, opens fire.

It was released to the media after a late afternoon news conference by Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

McCarthy said he understood how people will feel watching the video but urged calm.

“The officer in this case took a young man’s life, and he’s going to have to account for his actions,” McCarthy said.  “People have a right to be angry, people have a right to protest.”

But police will not tolerate criminal behavior, he warned.

“We knew this day was coming,” McCarthy said. “We’ve been prepared for this day coming for quite some time.”

“We are not predicting doom and gloom,” he later added as the news conference ended. “We are predicting protests.”

Emanuel said he hoped the city will “rise to the moment.”

“This episode can be a moment of understanding and learning,” the mayor said.

The release capped a day that started with extremely rare murder charges being filed against Officer Jason Van Dyke, who was ordered held without bail at a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said she had decided weeks ago to charge Van Dyke but was holding off until federal authorities completed their part of the joint investigation.  She said she “moved up” her decision to charge Van Dyke after a Cook County judge ruled last week that the video should be released to the public.

“I felt compelled in the interest of public safety to announce these state charges today,” she said at a news conference after Van Dyke had been ordered held without bail at least until Monday in the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s family issued a statement asking for calm in Chicago with the imminent release of the police dash-cam video of the shooting from October 2014. City Hall was preparing to release the video late Tuesday afternoon or evening.

“No one understands the anger more than us but if you choose to speak out, we urge you to be peaceful,” the statement said. “Don’t resort to violence in Laquan’s name, let his legacy be better than that.”

At bond court, prosecutors said Van Dyke opened fire six seconds after exiting his squad car as McDonald was walking away from him at 41st Street and Pulaski Road.

Van Dyke then fired 16 rounds at McDonald in about 14 seconds and was reloading when another officer told him to hold his fire, prosecutors said at bond court.

Judge Donald Panarese Jr. ordered Van Dyke held without bail until the judge can view the video Monday.

“I believe it’s pertinent for a bond hearing,” Panarese said of the video. “I’m sorry, but I’m holding you no bail until Monday.”

Clad in a brown sweatshirt, a white shirt and bluejeans, Van Dyke showed no emotion as he was led from the courtroom in custody.

Prosecutors sought to have the veteran officer held without bail until his trial. But Van Dyke’s lawyer, Daniel Herbert, objected, saying the officer was not a risk to flee.

“We believe we have a valid defense in this case,” Herbert said.

After court, Herbert, who has previously said Van Dyke feared for his life, questioned the filing of first-degree murder charges.

“Despite what you heard in that courtroom, this is not a murder case,” he told reporters.

The one-page criminal complaint lodged against Van Dyke charged him with shooting McDonald “without legal justification and with the intent to kill or do great bodily harm.”

At the news conference, Alvarez said she had made her decision to charge Van Dyke “internally” weeks before the judge ordered the video released to the public. Witness interviews had been done over the past year, and “up until a week ago they were still interviewing people,” she said.

“It wasn’t going to be much longer, it really wasn’t.” Alvarez said. “I would say within a month.”

Alvarez said she has never seen anything like the videotaped shooting in her three decades in law enforcement. She called the video “graphic,” “violent” and “chilling” and said it “no doubt will tear at the hearts of all Chicagoans.”

“To watch a 17-year-old young man die in such a violent manner is deeply disturbing,” the prosecutor said said.

Alvarez said several civilians witnessed the shooting. One motorist told authorities he never saw McDonald lunge at any officers or do anything else threatening before he was shot. McDonald also made no threatening motions while on the ground afterward, she said the motorist told authorities.

“The officer’s actions were not justified and were not a proper use of deadly force,” Alvarez told reporters.

The prosecutor defended taking a year to investigate the case, saying police shootings are “highly complex matters that carry with them very unique legal issues.”

According to details of the charges released in bond court Tuesday, Van Dyke was less than an hour into his overnight shift on the night of the shooting when a call came over the police radio at 9:47 p.m. of a citizen holding McDonald after he had been caught breaking into trucks and stealing radios in a parking lot near 41st Street and Kildare Avenue.

Another unit responded first and said over the radio that McDonald was walking away with a knife in his hand, Assistant State’s Attorney William Delaney said. At 9:56 p.m., a beat car reported that McDonald had “popped the tire on their squad car,” Delaney said.

The dash-cam on the squad car that captured the incident showed McDonald jogging south on Pulaski past a Burger King. McDonald then passed another squad car and waved his right arm with a knife visible in his right hand, Delaney said.

At 9:57 p.m., McDonald can be seen in the video walking away from the officers near the center line of Pulaski Road. Van Dyke and his partner got out of their marked Chevrolet Tahoe with their guns drawn, and Van Dyke took at least one step toward the teen and opened fire from about 10 feet away, Delaney said.

“McDonald’s arm jerks and his whole body spins around and falls to the ground,” Delaney said.

Alvarez said the video showed McDonald lying on the ground while shots continued to strike his body and the pavement near him, with puffs of debris kicking up and his arms and body jerking as he was hit. Van Dyke’s partner told authorities there was a brief pause in the shots and he saw Van Dyke reloading, so he told Van Dyke to hold his fire so he could approach and disarm McDonald.

The video then showed Van Dyke’s partner walking up to McDonald and kicking the knife out of his hand, Alvarez said.

In all, Van Dyke was on the scene for less than 30 seconds before he started shooting, and the first shot was fired about six seconds after he exited his squad car, Alvarez said. About 14 or 15 seconds passed between the first and last shots fired by Van Dyke, and for 13 of those seconds, McDonald was on the ground, she said.

According to interviews with other officers at the scene, McDonald never spoke to them or responded to commands to drop the knife. Witnesses who were stopped in traffic on Pulaski told authorities that McDonald seemed to be “looking for a way to get away from the police,” Alvarez said.

“He never moved toward, lunged at or did anything threatening,” she said.

Asked about the public outrage the case may cause, Alvarez said residents need to know that her office is listening.

“We are hearing. While none of us really expect officers to not do their job … we also know that there are a few bad apples that go too far and break the law and it’s my job to do something about it,” she said.

Police said McDonald, who had PCP in his system when he died, was behaving erratically and refusing police commands to drop a folding knife with a 3-inch blade. At the time of the shooting, the police union maintained that the officer fired in fear for his life because the teen lunged at him and his partner with the knife.

Van Dyke was placed on paid desk duty after the shooting.

According to police and court records, Van Dyke joined the department in 2001 and spent more than four years with the Targeted Response Unit — since disbanded by police Superintendent Garry McCarthy — that aggressively went into neighborhoods experiencing spikes in violent crime.

Van Dyke, 37, turned himself in to state’s attorney’s investigators at 7:41 a.m. Tuesday in their offices at the criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue, booking records show. As he arrived, Van Dyke kept his hands in his jeans pockets, looked straight ahead and did not answer questions from reporters as he walked briskly into the Leighton Criminal Court Building with his attorney.

Van Dyke’s prints were taken at 8:29 a.m., and he was placed in a one-person cell under close observation, records show. He was unarmed but brought along an inhaler he uses to treat his asthma, according to the records.

Meanwhile, Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, set up a GoFundMe page asking for online donations for her husband’s bond. Although the page did not mention her husband by name, it described him as a 15-year veteran officer “fighting for his freedom and justice.”

“He is a highly decorated and respected officer,” Tiffany Van Dyke wrote. “He was in a shooting that has been covered extensively by the media and we ask for your patience for all the facts to come out in the trial. We want him to be home with his family as we go through this judicial process.”

The page asked for donations “very quickly” so Van Dyke can pay whatever bond is set and be home for the holidays.

As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, donors, mostly anonymous, had given more than $10,000 of the $80,000 sought. The page also had attracted a number of negative comments, and shortly after 11 a.m. it was taken down.

The case marks the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years. Van Dyke faces a minimum of 20 years in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.

The charge comes less than a week after a Cook County judge ordered the release of a video that Emanuel’s administration had long sought to keep out of public view. As the mayor urged prosecutors to conclude their investigation Monday, he met with community leaders and aldermen to defend his handling of the controversy amid criticism that City Hall has not done enough to address police misconduct.

The mayor called on religious leaders and activists to encourage peaceful demonstrations even as staff prepared for the public fallout and discussed the best way to unveil the video.

The city lost its court fight last week to keep the video under wraps when the judge ruled in favor of freelance journalist Brandon Smith, who sued under the state’s open records law.

Lawyers for McDonald’s family, who won a $5 million settlement from the city even before filing a lawsuit, have said none of the other officers at the scene fired a shot, according to city officials.

McDonald’s autopsy found he was shot once on each side of his chest and suffered single bullet wounds in the scalp and neck, two in his back, seven in his arms, one in his right hand and two in his right leg. According to the report, nine of the 16 entrance wounds had a downward or slightly downward trajectory.

The Tribune in April first revealed that Van Dyke was the officer who shot  McDonald after city officials refused to disclose his identity, citing a provision in the union contract that bars the city from identifying officers unless they are convicted of a crime or the police board rules on their case. Police stripped him of his police powers and put him on paid desk duty pending the outcome of the investigation.

Chicago Tribune’s Rosemary Regina Sobol contributed.

 

Jason Meisner, Jeremy Gorner and Steve Schmadeke, “Chicago releases dash-cam video of fatal shooting after cop charged with murder”, November 24, 2015, The Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-chicago-cop-shooting-video-laquan-mcdonald-charges-20151124-story.html