The official version of Laquan McDonald’s 2014 death began taking shape the night the 17-year-old died in a hail of bullets fired by a Chicago Police officer.
But that version never matched the images captured on the dashboard camera of a fellow officer.
The video, which shows officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 bullets into the teen from some 10 feet away, has led to street demonstrations across the city, prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to fire his police chief, and even — after some initial reluctance — welcome the “engagement” of federal investigators in helping reform the department.
Friday, city officials released nearly 400 pages of investigative reports on McDonald’s death. The reports themselves should trouble the mayor and federal investigators as much as the horrific scenes of a police officer pumping bullets into a teenager who has already fallen to the ground, said Jamie Kalven, a journalist and activist who has created a database of police misconduct reports and has read dozens of similar investigative files in misconduct cases.
“These documents reveal the molecular structure of the ‘code of silence’ that starts on the scene and it continues through the supplemental reports they filed months later,” Kalven said. “The crime at the center of this case is extreme, someone shot 16 times, but the response from the CPD and the city is not. This is not a departure from the norm … this is how the institution responds.”
But Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo disagreed. He noted that the video shows the events of that night from only one perspective, and that the officers arrived on the scene at different times. Suggesting there is a culture of silence in the department is wrong, he said.
“No one is going to jeopardize their livelihood to consciously engage in a conspiracy in this day and age,” Angelo said. “In today’s police environment everybody is aware there are cameras on every business, on streetlights, and our own vehicles.”
In handwritten notes scrawled by a detective the night of the shooting, and in public statements that night by a police union spokesman, the story was the same: McDonald menaced officers with a knife as they followed him down South Pulaski Road, and Officer Jason Van Dyke opened fire on the teen as McDonald lunged at them.
The version was only more detailed in a final supplemental report filed months later: McDonald was swinging a knife and moving toward officers when Van Dyke, fearing for his life, emptied his 9-millimeter. Van Dyke’s account was backed up by his partner and two of the six other officers who arrived at the intersection of 41st Street and Pulaski as McDonald was gunned down.
The officer whose SUV dashboard camera captured the shooting told detectives she didn’t see the shooting herself. She was looking down as she shifted the Tahoe into park, and only heard the shots, though State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the fusillade of 16 gunshots lasted 14 seconds or more.
That officer’s partner, sitting beside her in the SUV, heard the shots but did not see who fired, according to the report.
Two other officers in another SUV were making a U-turn on Pulaski when Van Dyke opened fire, and said they only heard the shooting.
The two officers who were first to happen on McDonald said the teen had ignored them as he fled from a truck parking lot where he had reportedly been trying to break into vehicles. When they tried to corral him with their vehicle, the teen popped the tire on their vehicle with a knife. One officer followed McDonald toward Pulaski on foot, but said he didn’t see the shooting.
Two officers backed Van Dyke’s story, as did Van Dyke’s partner, who said the only reason he didn’t shoot at McDonald himself was because Van Dyke was standing in his line of fire.
Notes on Van Dyke’s interview by detectives also include an addendum: Van Dyke made reference to the “21-foot rule” — a police training dictum that states a knife-wielding attacker can close a distance of 21 feet before a officer can draw a weapon, aim and fire two shots. Van Dyke also said he recalled a 2012 officer safety bulletin that warned officers about the existence of knives with .22-caliber revolvers built into the handle.
A police commander’s preliminary report ruled the shooting was justified hours later.
“Based on information available at the time of this report it is the preliminary determination of the undersigned officer that Officer Van Dyke fired his weapon in compliance with Department policy,” states a “Tactical Response Report” filed the day after the shooting. “Officer Van Dyke fired his weapon in fear of his life when the offender while armed with a knife continued to approach and refused all verbal direction.”
When final reports were completed in March, five months later, the case was treated as a justifiable homicide, with the official account of the shooting reading as Van Dyke described events: McDonald ignored shouted commands to drop the knife, turned and moved toward Van Dyke and his partner as they stood outside their squad car. Van Dyke opened fire, and continued pumping bullets into McDonald as the teen lay in the road, trying to get up and still holding the knife.
On the video, McDonald seems to be walking away from Van Dyke and his partner, and spins toward them only after he is struck by the first bullets. Slumped on the ground after being hit perhaps twice, McDonald does not appear to try to get to his feet; his body jerks as he is struck by more bullets.
Chicago Police would not say on Saturday if any of the officers who gave statements to investigators that didn’t match the video have been disciplined.
The reports, and a broad away of evidence including the dashcam footage, were handed over to the Independent Police Review Authority, a civilian agency that investigates police misconduct. IPRA spokesman Larry Merritt said Saturday that an investigation of the shooting was ongoing, but would not say whether IPRA was investigating whether officers made false statements or detectives falsified reports.
“We have an investigation of the shooting itself,” Merritt said. “Right now, to go into other aspects, I can’t do that.”
IPRA has closed investigations of 208 police shootings in the last two years, finding in each case that officers were justified when they opened fire. One reason, said former IPRA investigator Lorenzo Davis, is because the agency relies heavily on reports from CPD detectives.
“The police officers get their stories together, or the detectives help them put together a story,” said Davis, a former CPD officer who was twice cleared in on-duty shootings. “What you end up with is basically the story of the police officers and maybe a witness or two.
Davis has sued the city, claiming he was fired by IPRA because he resisted when told by supervisors to reclassify shootings he ruled were unjustified. Davis said most of his peers relied almost exclusively on information in reports even when they conflicted with video evidence.
“I would always examine the evidence and go by what I saw, not what was in the report,” said Davis.
Van Dyke at some point landed on desk duty. He remained there until two weeks ago, when Alvarez announced he had been charged with first-degree murder. The same day, the city released video of the shooting just ahead of a court-ordered deadline to make the footage public.
Whether his fellow officers have continued to back Van Dyke’s claims is not clear. Documents filed by prosecutors do not point to any statement by officers questioning Van Dyke’s actions, though they do note that none of the other officers fired a shot.
The U.S. Department of Justice also is investigating the shooting, and the DOJ also appears to be readying a full probe of a pattern of civil rights abuses by the CPD, similar to probes that have led to federal oversight of police departments from L.A. to Cleveland.
The “code of silence” has been documented in other police misconduct cases. In 2012, a federal jury awarded bartender Karolina Obrycka $850,000 in a civil lawsuit that alleged Chicago Police officers conspired to cover up her beating at the hands of off-duty police officer Anthony Abbate. The city tried to have the verdict erased, offering to pay Obrycka the full amount of the judgment without appealing, but U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve refused to go along.
In a report last year, former federal prosecutor Ronald Safer found the cover-up culture was alive and well within the CPD, and recommended the department fire officers who try to protect their peers from discipline.
In a deposition in a lawsuit over a 2005 fatal police shooting by another officer, Van Dyke admitted he copied information so his reports on the incident would match his fellow officers, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“This is really something more pervasive and disturbing, and more challenging than any one shooting,” Kalven said. “It’s not a handful of bad apples, it’s a culture that pervades the police department.”