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Chicago cops brace for trouble with release of shooting video

Plainclothes Chicago police officers ordered to don their uniforms after the Paris attacks will likely continue to wear them next week in preparation for unrest that could follow the release of a video of a white officer firing 16 bullets into black teenager Laquan McDonald, officials said Friday.

The death of black suspects at the hands of police triggered violent demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and New York, but Chicago managed to escape such trouble. That could change now that a Cook County judge has ordered the city to release the McDonald video by Nov. 25, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel reversed course and vowed to comply.

RELATED: City won’t appeal judge’s order to reveal cop-shooting video

A police source said hundreds of plainclothes tactical and gang officers were ordered to wear their uniforms after the Paris attacks to “ease people’s minds,” but authorities have not received tips about a terror threat to Chicago. Those officers are expected to continue to wear their uniforms through next week when the city will likely release the video.

At least some days off may be cancelled and tours of duty extended as the city hopes for the best, but prepares for the worst.

Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who won praise handling protests during the 2012 NATO Summit, huddled with top deputies and Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo Friday to refine the city’s strategy for dealing with demonstrators. Police also met with business leaders.

McCarthy also sent a message to his troops Friday saying he’s confident they will remain professional “during situations that may test your fortitude.”

He said the department’s goal is to “protect 1st Amendment rights of all people within the city of Chicago.”

“I have the utmost confidence that our members will serve as the calming force which our communities need and expect. Our job is not an easy one, but I trust in your ability to act reasonably in all situations. In fact, let us look upon this moment as yet another opportunity to showcase why we are, without exception, the finest police department in the world.”

The department is prepared to respond to any demonstrations and will hold people accountable “if they cross the line,” the police source said, adding: “We might use the same tactics that were used during the NATO demonstrations.”

City Hall is more concerned about “how to communicate the video” to the public than about the possibility of demonstrations, the source said.

Angelo said he is concerned for the safety of Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who fired the 16 shots that killed McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014 — and for the rest of the rank-and-file.

Laquan McDonald | Provided photo
Laquan McDonald | Provided photo

“We are concerned about his safety and every other officer’s safety. We’re concerned if, in fact, there is civil unrest — if something occurs after this video is released,” Angelo said.

“We don’t want to see our town torn apart. We don’t want to see people get hurt.”

Of particular concern, sources said, are officers assigned to work in one-man squad cars, officers on bike and foot patrol in South and West Side neighborhoods plagued by gang violence, and officers assigned to stand alone on fixed posts with no partner and no car.

The controversial shooting occurred after McDonald, 17, refused police commands to drop a 4-inch knife, authorities say. He had PCP in his bloodstream.

Van Dyke’s attorney, Dan Herbert, told reporters Friday the video is “graphic, it’s violent and it’s difficult to watch,” but the public shouldn’t conclude his client was in the wrong based solely on the video.

He said the video doesn’t show the officer’s perspective, doesn’t have audio and distorts the distance between the officer and McDonald. Officers are trained to use deadly force when a person with a knife is within 21 feet of them and doesn’t obey commands to drop the weapon, Herbert said.

“In this case, at the point which my client first decided to fire he was certainly within that 21-foot boundary,” he said, adding that the shooting was lawful.

Herbert confirmed the U.S. attorney’s office and Cook County state’s attorney’s office were looking at it.

“I think the U.S. attorney is seriously struggling with this case,” he said. “And I can’t speak for the U.S. attorney, but I think he’s doing the right thing. … He’s actually acting as a thorough prosecutor, not as a politician.”

Emanuel has strongly hinted the investigation may produce an indictment of Van Dyke before the video is released.

Angelo, the union president, is urging the feds to ask a judge to keep the video under wraps if the investigation cannot be finished before the video is released.

Van Dyke has been stripped of his police powers, but he is still on the city payroll assigned to desk duty. No matter when the video is released, Angelo wondered how Van Dyke can get a fair trial if he is charged.

“The superintendent and I don’t agree on everything. But we do agree that this could be evidence in a court proceeding. I don’t think evidence in a pending case should be released or shared with the public,” Angelo said.

In April, the City Council agreed to a $5 million settlement with Laquan McDonald’s family — even before a lawsuit had been filed.

On that day, Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton said the dashboard camera video triggered the settlement. Patton detailed for aldermen what the video shows: a Chicago police officer firing repeatedly at McDonald as five other officers hold their fire. Patton also disclosed the shooting was the subject of a federal investigation.

Mike Robbins, an attorney who represents McDonald’s family, said he’s seen the video and it shows the teenager was walking away from police at the time of the shooting.

“What’s important is that the community be told the truth about what happened, about how he was shot,” Robbins said after Thursday’s ruling.

McDonald’s mother has not seen the video and does not want it released.

“What mother would want to see the execution of her son over and over again on the nightly news or YouTube?” Robbins asked.