In Chicago especially, we know the story of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was gunned down by police officer Jason Van Dyke near 40th and Pulaski on the night of October 20, 2014.
We know — or have little reason to doubt — that Chicago police closed ranks in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and seized a surveillance tape from a nearby Burger King; officers who were on the scene filed uniformly similar reports calling it a justified shooting; witnesses were told what THEY saw, and the spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police told reporters an individual with a knife “in a crazed condition” was coming at an officer who had no choice but to open fire.
And of course, the images from the dashcam video — the video that utterly destroyed the false narrative — are forever seared in our memories.
We know the story so well, and yet when we experience it all over again through the lens of Rick Rowley’s riveting tick-tock documentary, “16 Shots,” it feels as if we’re watching a real-life legal thriller, with truth and at least a measure of justice winning out over the infamous “code of silence,” which of course never existed among police ranks and doesn’t exist today.
As Rowley’s film reminds us, there was no huge public outcry in the immediate aftermath of Laquan’s death, no major media surge to investigate the official police line.
“I did what everybody else does, I turned the page,” says Jamie Kalven, an independent journalist (and a producer of this film) who eventually did return to the story, did a ton of old-fashioned legwork and eventually wrote a story for Slate that was a major factor in returning the spotlight to the events of the shooting.
Before that, however, this seemed to be just another story of a young man with a troubled life who put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, made some really bad decisions — and got himself killed.
“Chicago police say they had no choice,” says one local TV reporter in archival news footage from the time.
“Police say this was a clear-cut case of self-defense,” says another.
Alma Benitez, a witness to the shooting, recalls being treated more like a suspect at the police station on the night of the shooting, as officers told her the story she was telling didn’t line up with the video they had. If she didn’t tell them what she wanted to hear, says Benitez, “I definitely felt I was going to jail.”
Rowley does a masterful job of laying out the story in largely chronological order, interspersing updates on the case and archival footage with interviews with former Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Unsurprisingly, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Officer Van Dyke appear on camera only in news and (in Van Dyke’s case) trial footage.
Some of the subjects who agreed to interviews did themselves no favors. Former FOP spokesman Pat Camden grows so uncomfortable with the line of questioning, he says he doesn’t like the way the interview is going. A former FOP president tries to justify Van Dyke’s muddled testimony at the trial by explaining Van Dyke was from a relatively tranquil suburb and was placed in one of the most crime-riddled neighborhoods in the nation. (At the time of the shooting, Van Dyke was a 13-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department.)
At times, the abundance of drone shots of the city’s magnificent skyline, and the “Law and Order”-type score, only serve to get in the way of what is already gripping and compelling and, yes, infuriating. The manner in which the story unraveled, and the unapologetic stances of many of the major players involved — those are more than enough to keep us riveted to the screen.
As “16 Shots” reminds us, if someone in the police department hadn’t sent the dashcam video (perhaps inadvertently) to the attorney for McDonald’s family, the whole case might have been buried forever. And if Emanuel had pressed for the release of the video BEFORE the 2015 election, would he even have been re-elected?
The great journalist Carol Marin notes how unusual it was for the city to quickly agree to a $5 million settlement to the family just six months after the shooting.
“That was the reddest of red flags,” she says.
Once the video is released, Emanuel quickly changes his tune about the case, telling the City Council, “Nothing can excuse what happened to Laquan McDonald,” and calling for McCarthy’s resignation. Where was this indignation months earlier?
We know Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. We also know he could be a free man in just a couple of years.
Nevertheless. As “16 Shots” so well documents, this was a seminal moment in Chicago history, as “just another justified police shooting” turned out to be anything but that.