After the first murder charge against an active-duty Chicago police officer in over three decades, the city’s political establishment is eager to move on.
But while Officer Jason Van Dyke could face 20 years or more in prison if convicted of killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald over a year ago without apparent justification, the broader breakdown of the police department and city government’s responsibilities to McDonald and the broader Chicago community threatens to go unpunished.
The whole ugly thing would likely have gotten swept under the rug if journalists had not exposed an autopsy report and video footage that contradict the official narrative about what happened to McDonald. One of those journalists is Jamie Kalven, who emphasized the extensive and toxic cover-up of the killing to the Chicago Reporter on Tuesday.
Instead of taking statements from eyewitnesses, Kalven says, police moved people away from the scene of the killing. They did not take down contact information to ensure they could follow up later, witnesses told the journalist. Cops even went into a nearby fast food store and deleted nearly an hour and a half of security camera footage that may have captured the killing, the local NBC news affiliate reported back in the spring.
After neutralizing the potential for an alternative narrative based on civilian accounts and security camera footage, the police infrastructure offered its own version of events to the public. According to Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden, “none of the officers who responded had a Taser to use on the teen and were trying to detain him long enough for one to arrive.” Camden told the Chicago Tribune that McDonald lunged at the cops, who shot him in self-defense.
The video Kalven helped expose indicates Camden was lying, or at least relaying a story that bears little resemblance to the truth. McDonald is seen jogging and then walking in the middle of a street, roughly parallel to a line of cops and cop cars. He is starting to veer away from the officers when Van Dyke empties a 16-round clip into him in about 15 seconds. Charging documents indicate that 14 of Van Dyke’s shots came while McDonald was already on the ground, and that one of the two fired while the child was standing struck him in the back first.
Van Dyke opened fire just six seconds after exiting his car and just half a minute after his vehicle arrived at the scene, according to prosecutors. Less than a minute passed between Van Dyke’s arrival to a scene where fellow officers were working to contain McDonald and detain him, and when the accused murderer had to stop and reload his service pistol because he’d fired a full clip into McDonald.
Yet the department itself claimed that McDonald died of a single gunshot to the chest, not the 16 shots to the back, legs, arms, chest, and head that Van Dyke actually fired.
The documents also say that no other officers at the scene thought McDonald had done anything threatening toward Van Dyke, corroborating the appearance of events from the dashcam video. But the investigation that produced those statements from Van Dyke’s colleagues began only after reporters challenged the official story.
Today, even with the official story of McDonald’s death in tatters, city officials appear eager to limit the blame to Van Dyke. “One individual needs to be held accountable,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on a conference call with community leaders Monday.
Once Van Dyke is prosecuted, the mayor said, “we can go as a city and begin the process of healing.” That process seems unlikely to include accountability for Van Dyke’s colleagues who abetted the official story about why and how he killed McDonald.
It’s rare for police officers to face professional accountability over misconduct allegations, let alone to be prosecuted for a crime. But its rarer still to see prosecutors, supervisors, or city officials seek broader remedies for the offending officer’s co-conspirators even when video evidence indicates a cover-up. In part that’s because it’s tough to discern between an out-and-out cover-up and a more understandable degree of confusion in the immediate wake of a police killing.
Policework requires officers to arrive at a consistent narrative of events in general, PoliceMisconduct.net managing editor Jonathan Blanks said in an email. “Each case is different, but typically officers sign-off on one another’s official accounts for consistency in any case, whether or not there is misconduct or use of force. This isn’t necessarily malevolent on the part of the officers — consistent accounts build much stronger cases than cases that have conflicting accounts,” Blanks, who has studied policing for years, said.
That baseline dynamic of policework makes it hard for even the most aggressive prosecutor to discern between willful dishonesty and good-faith consensus between officers with different vantage points and recollections.
When a group of Fullerton, CA police officers beat Kelly Thomas to death as he cried out for his father and told his assailants he couldn’t breathe in 2011, city officials initially told reporters that Thomas had actually died of a drug overdose. They also said he’d been violently resisting arrest to such an extent that multiple officers had broken bones. Neither of those claims is true, and Thomas’ father has accused Fullerton officials of intentionally smearing his son’s character in the press to excuse an abuse of force. But the broken bones claim is partially supported by initial medical reports that the officers might have fractures, and an outside review commissioned by the city found officials did not intentionally deceive the public. Two of the officers were charged and later acquitted in Thomas’ death, and the city paid out a multimillion-dollar settlement to Thomas’s father.
After Officer Timothy Loehmann killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, he claimed he’d given the child multiple verbal warnings before shooting him in the chest. Loehmann said Rice, who was holding a toy gun rather than a real weapon, then reached into his waistband. “He gave me no choice, he reached for the gun and there was nothing I could do,” Loehmann told investigators. Prosecutors have commissioned reports from experts siding with Loehmann on the reasonableness of his decision to kill Rice. Video shows he in fact shot Rice less than two seconds after arriving on the scene, and is inconclusive on the claim that Rice reached for something. Prosecutor Timothy McGinty has accused Rice’s family of being out for money rather than justice and generally stalled on deciding whether or not to charge Loehmann in the killing, but investigations have revealed that other officers are not willing to corroborate Loehmann’s claims about yelling multiple warnings prior to shooting Rice.
Sometimes, though, the cover-up question is more clear-cut. Officer Michael Slager spent days telling the world that Walter Scott had tried to take his taser, forcing him to shoot Scott fatally in South Carolina last spring, before a cell phone video exposed that Slager had in fact shot a fleeing Scott repeatedly in the back. The video appears to show Slager dropping his taser near Scott’s body only after killing him. Slager’s police department backed up his story for a matter of days before the truth came out, leading prosecutors to charge the officer with murder.
Video similarly contradicted an initially-widespread narrative in the killing of Sam DuBose by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing. Tensing and multiple other officers said DuBose’s car had begun to drag Tensing, causing the officer to shoot the driver in self-defense. The video shows the car didn’t start moving until after Tensing put a bullet through DuBose’s head at point-blank range.
Anecdotes don’t satisfy. But there’s almost zero hard data that can shed light on the divide between legitimate officer consensus and willful cover-up. The police misconduct tracking site that Blanks helps run has flagged a small percentage of overall misconduct cases as involving some form of dishonesty by officers, but that’s a broad category.
“Our data is very limited for a number of reasons,” Blanks said. “The so-called Blue Wall of Silence is an informal institutional norm that tends to place officers’ loyalty to one another over professional dedication to justice,” in part because honest officers are afraid of what their coworkers would do to them if they don’t back a colleague’s story. That undermines the quality of the data across the board, and even those incidents where the Blue Wall breaks down can remain out of public view thanks to records laws. “The public is left to trust the administrative mechanisms to mete out officer punishments for violations…without the public eye watching over that you would see in a criminal trial,” Blanks said.