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4 Chicago police officers face firing over Laquan McDonald shooting

Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, left, and his attorney Daniel Herbert

Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, left, and his attorney Daniel Herbert listen to proceedings during Van Dyke's sentencing hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Jan. 18. | Getty

More than four years after Laquan McDonald was killed by a Chicago police officer, hearings began Wednesday to determine whether four other officers accused of lying about the shooting should be fired.

The Chicago Police Board will not make a ruling in the case for another few months. But the hearings this week in the downtown office of the Police Board — which will take on the tone of a courtroom trial — will lay the foundation for the Chicago Police Department’s efforts to fire Sgt. Stephen Franko and officers Janet Mondragon, Daphne Sebastian and Ricardo Viramontes.

Though none of the four officers in this week’s hearings were criminally charged, the latest fallout from the McDonald shooting comes on the heels of back-to-back historic criminal trials that stemmed from the teenager’s death.

The first of those two trials ended in October with Officer Jason Van Dyke — who shot McDonald 16 times — convicted by a jury of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. Van Dyke was sentenced to 6 years, 9 months in prison.

In a separate trial three months ago, a Cook County judge acquitted three other Chicago cops accused of taking part in a cover-up. In that case, CPD Det. David March and Officers Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney faced charges of conspiracy, obstructing justice and official misconduct.

This week’s hearings stem from administrative charges filed by the Police Department in August 2016 with the Police Board against the four officers, but the board decided to hold off on deciding the fate of the officers’ careers until after the conclusion of both trials.

In opening statements Wednesday, John Gibbons, the attorney representing CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson, told the Police Board: “They had a simple but important duty: to tell the truth.”

Each officer allegedly gave or approved false statements about the shooting of McDonald in the 4100 block of South Pulaski Road — accounts that were refuted by police dashboard-camera footage.

The only thing everyone agreed on Wednesday was that things boiled down to a matter of perception.

Franko, who was not at the scene of the shooting, said he signed off on accounts provided by Van Dyke and his partner, Joseph Walsh, that said McDonald was attacking them when he was shot because that was “their perception of what occurred that night.”

The fact that Franko saw “bits and pieces” of the video over the shoulders of detectives who were watching it on a laptop didn’t change that, Franko said Wednesday.

Franko said he watched the video for about two seconds and looked away when McDonald’s body hit the pavement.

“As soon as he went down I turned away … because I don’t enjoy watching people get shot,” he said.

Asked if he saw McDonald use deadly force in the video, Franko said: “In those seconds of the video I saw, there was none.”

When asked about raising discrepancies with his superiors in what he saw in the video versus the accounts provided by his fellow officers, Franko said, “That is not my responsibility.”

Viramontes, meanwhile, acknowledged that his statements the night of the shooting did not match up with what was later shown on video.

Viramontes said the night of the shooting that Van Dyke had yelled to “drop the knife” before the officer started firing. He also said McDonald was walking toward Van Dyke.

The city’s attorneys pointed out that Viramontes contradicted himself in later statements to investigators by saying he didn’t know who had told McDonald to drop the knife.

And when Viramontes re-watched the dashcam video of the shooting on Wednesday, he acknowledged that McDonald was walking away from the officers while Walsh and Van Dyke were the ones moving toward McDonald.

Still, Viramontes maintained what he said initially was an accurate description of the events leading up to the shooting from his perspective.

Viramontes was also asked about his statement that McDonald turned toward Van Dyke before the shooting. Viramontes conceded Wednesday that it was possible the teenager’s body turned because he was shot.

Mondragon, who arrived on the scene in her police vehicle with Sebastian in the passenger seat, told investigators she didn’t see the shooting because she was looking down to shift the car into park.

Gibbons said Mondragon was lying and the video will show her car was in motion at the time of the shooting. “Parked cars cannot move forward,” he said.

Her attorney, William Fahy, told the Police Board that Mondragon’s story will hold up.

“She was startled. This was a startling event. She did put her head down. She did stop the car. She did put it in park,” he said.

“Human beings are not robots … her perception was her perception,” he said.

Mondragon is expected to be questioned Thursday, and the hearings are expected to last through Friday. The board will deliberate in May. The first board meeting where a decision could be handed down will be June 20.

All four have been stripped of their police powers and assigned to desk duty pending the outcome of the hearings.

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