Chicago After Laquan McDonald

Ben Austen, Chicago After Laquan McDonald. The New York Times Magazine, 20 April 2016. “In the wake of a shocking video that showed a black teenager shot 16 times by a police officer, the city is rocked by revelations of police brutality and misconduct–and by activists determined to upend the political order.”

In November [2015], the city [of Chicago] released a video that showed Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, being shot 16 times by Jason Van Dyke, a white cop. The footage was gruesome. But the routine way in which the [20] October 2014 killing was covered up for more than a year exposed a deeper culture of secrecy and impunity in Chicago that implicated the entire police force and much of the city’s government.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel reacted by firing his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, last December. In quick succession, other officials stepped down, and Emanuel promised an overhaul of his Police Department. But much of the outrage in Chicago has remained concentrated on him. People marching in the streets hoist “Fire Rahm” signs. In polls, nearly two-thirds of African-American voters in the city said they didn’t trust him, and half of all likely voters thought the mayor should resign….

Violent crime is again soaring in Chicago, with 151 homicides and 774 shootings over the first three months of 2016 alone, nearly twice as many as in the same period last year. Yet the very communities most in need of public safety have come to see the criminal-justice system as another deadly threat. A scathing report issued on April 13 by a task force the mayor appointed confirmed that their distrust of the police was warranted — “C.P.D.’s [Chicago Police Department’s] own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color,” the task force found….

Chicago had more fatal shootings by the police than any other American city from 2010 to 2014, according to an analysis by the Better Government Association. Yet members of the Chicago Police Department have faced hardly any punishment. Of the 409 shootings by police officers investigated since 2007 by the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which is charged with looking into serious claims of misconduct, only two of the shootings were found to be unjustified….

That McDonald’s death shocked the city into action was a result in part of the video itself. You can count in the footage, recorded from a patrol car’s dashboard camera, exactly how long it takes Van Dyke to jump out of another cruiser, gun already fully extended, and open fire: six seconds. The first shots send the 17-year-old spinning, his arms airplaning out, nearly a complete 360, as he topples. Then Van Dyke continues shooting into McDonald’s inert body. Thousands of pages of police reports and emails about the case slowly came to light, document after damning document, detailing the extent and everyday nature of the cover-up….

On the night of Oct. 20, 2014, two officers responding to reports of a break-in at a parking lot came upon Laquan McDonald — black male, six feet, dark hoodie. “This guy, uh, kind of walking away,” one of them radioed calmly at 9:53 p.m. “He has a knife in his hand.” They were eight miles southwest of downtown, on what was little more than an industrial service road, bordered by the Stevenson Expressway and beyond that the valley of a rail yard. The cops treated the situation like the routine encounter that it was. For a quarter mile, they trailed McDonald, one in a squad car and the other on foot, giving the suspect a wide berth so as not to provoke him. Even after the teenager spiked one of the patrol car’s front tires with his three-inch blade, the officers did not fire their guns. Four additional cruisers arrived, three of them hemming in McDonald on his left and one from behind. That’s when Jason Van Dyke emerged from one of these cars and shot McDonald dead.

The cover-up began almost immediately. “He wasn’t dropping the knife, and he was coming at the officer,” a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police told the reporters who soon converged on the scene. Describing McDonald as “crazed,” “with a strange gaze about him,” the union representative said that the officer then shot McDonald in the chest: “He leaves them no choice at that point but to defend themselves.” An official department statement was issued hours later: “Officers confronted the armed offender, who refused to comply with orders to drop the knife and continued to approach the officers. As a result of this action, the officer discharged his weapon, striking the offender.”

Craig Futterman, who was a public defender for juveniles on the city’s West Side before starting the University of Chicago civil rights clinic, read the story the following day. “My eyes glazed over,” he said. Like McDonald, a second-generation ward of the state, almost all the people shot by the Chicago police are African-American. A castoff child wandering an urban back of beyond, McDonald seemed destined to be another unremarked addition to the statistics, with little known about the circumstances of his death save what the police reported. Less than three weeks later, however, a whistle-blower from inside law enforcement phoned Futterman. The caller had seen the dashcam video and insisted that it didn’t corroborate the police narrative at all. “That officer shot him like a dog in the street,” Futterman recalls the source telling him. “It was nothing short of an execution.” Futterman says the caller feared that the shooting would be buried like so many others in Chicago. “Please, Craig,” the source implored. “Look into it and let people know.”

Futterman couldn’t go public with news of the video: That would compromise the identity of the caller. But the whistle-blower also told Futterman about a man who had been driving his adult son to the hospital when the police cars swarming around McDonald brought him to a halt. Before he could give a statement to a cop directing traffic, the officer shooed him off with the wave of a flashlight. Jamie Kalven [who runs the Invisible Institute, a local independent news organization] tracked the driver down. He told Kalven that Van Dyke had fired not once or twice to the chest, as the police reports suggested, but until he was out of bullets, at least a dozen times, most of them as the teenager lay helpless on the ground. Van Dyke, the driver told Kalven, had paused to appraise the situation after the first shots whirled McDonald to the ground, and then he continued firing on the prone and lifeless teenager….

Three weeks after the shooting, McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, asked a pair of attorneys, Jeff Neslund and Michael Robbins, to help her look into the circumstances of her son’s death….

“Three current witnesses to a fatal shooting, not one is recorded, video­taped or even asked to sign a written statement,” Robbins told me. “It was a patently fraudulent investigation. It was a calculated effort to avoid documenting what people saw and finding out what happened. And that’s not uncommon in Chicago.” The full police report of the shooting completed months later would state that of the five witnesses who heard gunshots, only one saw the shooting. The report also included statements from Van Dyke and the nine other officers on the scene. Van Dyke told a sergeant that McDonald “was swinging the knife in an aggressive, exaggerated manner,” that the teenager “continued to advance” on him. These statements were untrue. In defense of his life, Van Dyke said, he backpedaled and fired his Smith & Wesson. Five of the other cops there claimed they saw the exact same thing. The other four — including the two responding officers, who had dutifully followed their training, doing everything they could not to escalate tensions — said they didn’t have their eyes on McDonald in those vital moments….

Employees at the [nearby] Burger King told Hunter’s lawyers that the police also entered the restaurant shortly after the shooting and demanded access to the surveillance-video system. A manager asleep at home had to provide a password. Internal cameras show officers typing away on the system’s keyboard. Eighty-six minutes of video, covering the time of the shooting, went missing.

In January 2015, Kalven obtained McDonald’s autopsy with a Freedom of Information request. The autopsy, performed with a representative from the Independent Police Review Authority present, inventoried McDonald’s tattoos: “Good Son” on his right hand and “YOLO,” for “You only live once,” on his left. The report documented the 16 times he was shot, bullets striking his left scalp and right chest, his left elbow, his right upper leg and his right lower back. Fragments were lodged in his teeth. Ten of the 16 shots struck him from behind or the sides. “It was knowing absolutely, definitively, demonstrably that the city was lying,” Kalven said….

Documents Futterman acquired in 2006 showed that a relatively small number of officers in Chicago were responsible for most of the misdeeds. Chicago’s police force then had 13,500 members (it now has 12,500), and only 662 cops racked up more than 10 citizen complaints; most officers finished their careers with just a handful. Yet the department rarely disciplined or retrained even its 662 most-maligned cops…. Before Jason Van Dyke opened fire on Laquan McDonald, at least 19 complaints had been logged against him, 11 of them for excessive force. In 2007, the city paid $350,000 to a black motorist Van Dyke beat up during a traffic stop. He faced no consequences….

Last year, Emanuel announced that the city would offer reparations to those harmed by the worst case of police misconduct in Chicago’s history. From 1972 to 1991, officers tortured at least 125 African-American suspects in station-house interrogation rooms. The assaults were carried out or supervised by Jon Burge, who was promoted from detective to commander during the years that his “midnight crew” coerced false confessions from men by beating them with phone books, suffocating them and shocking them with electrical devices on their genitals or in their rectums….

In 2010, Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and was imprisoned; he was released less than four years later and is now living in Florida with a full police pension. The revelations eroded much of whatever trust black communities still had in the police force and even prompted a Republican governor to effectively end the death penalty in Illinois.

“Burge happened 30 years prior to me being mayor,” Emanuel told me. “I wanted to close the chapter on this and bring the city whole.” But the mayor introduced the reparations agreement in the City Council on April 15, 2015 — the same day aldermen voted to pay $5 million to the family of Laquan McDonald. Emanuel would soon be forced to admit that the same patterns of perjury and abuse had continued under his watch without any real impediments. “We cannot ask citizens in crime-ravaged neighborhoods to break the code of silence if we continue to let a code of silence exist in our own Police Department,” the mayor said in a speech two weeks after the McDonald video went viral. Lawyers suing the city had exhausted countless hours over decades trying to get a finding by a court just to admit that this code existed. And here a sitting Chicago mayor was stating it as fact.

The furor over the McDonald revelations led Emanuel to usher in a change in leadership: the removal of Superintendent McCarthy, and the swift departures of the chief of detectives and the head and his deputy at IPRA. It also heralded a flurry of police reforms. The city would now add to the number of officers carrying Tasers and other alternatives to guns; it would expand the use of wearable body cameras. The police would start to look at patterns in complaints against officers to pick out cops in need of retraining. New mandates on when and how officers should use force read as if they could have been written by reformer activists: “There need to be fundamental changes, because even when force may be legally justified, it doesn’t mean it’s necessary.” Last December [2015], the Justice Department announced that its civil rights division would conduct a wide-ranging pattern-and-practice investigation of the Chicago police. Emanuel at first opposed the probe. Although he now supports it, he hoped the police-accountability task force he created would come up with homegrown solutions ahead of any federal mandates.

Craig Futterman, one of the 50 experts who served on the task force’s working groups, was relieved that the report released on April 13 confronted the hard realities of racism, abuse and lack of oversight in the Chicago Police Department. “It dealt in real truth-telling,” he said. “The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging it and getting the diagnosis right.” Yet he also said there are reasons to remain skeptical that real change will come to a troubled police force and a city with enduring structures of racism and inequality. He pointed to a report put together in 1972 by Ralph Metcalfe, the Olympic sprinter and former United States congressman from Chicago, that also demanded reforms of a racist and abusive police force. “We had this same conversation over 40 years ago,” Futterman said.

See also:

Jamie Kalven, Sixteen Shots. “Chicago police have told their version of how 17-year-old black teen Laquan McDonald died. The autopsy tells a different story.” Slate, 10 February 2015. Winner of the 2015 George Polk Award for Local Reporting.

Brandon Smith, Why I’m Suing the Chicago Police Department. Chicago Reader, 7 August 2015.

Ithaca College, 25 February 2016: Izzy Award to be Shared by Chicago Journalists Jamie Kalven and Brandon Smith and Inside Climate News. “Working separately, these two independent journalists relentlessly challenged the official fiction about the killing of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police in October 2014. Kalven, director of the journalistic Invisible Institute production company on Chicago’s South Side, and freelancer Smith spent months pursuing sources, witnesses and the documentary evidence that ultimately ended the cover-up.

In February 2015, after having earlier urged the city to “release all video footage of the incident,” Kalven meticulously analyzed the autopsy report on the teenager, which he’d obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Kalven was also interviewed by Democracy Now!

In August, when major news outlets had given up, Smith sued the Chicago Police Department over its refusal to release the police dash-cam video of the shooting, and wrote about it. In November, a judge ruled in Smith’s favor; after the video’s release led to murder charges against the police officer, Smith was barred from the mayor’s news conference that his suit had precipitated.

“The perseverance of Kalven and Smith in the face of official stonewalling, which is a hallmark of independent media, would make I.F. Stone proud,” said the Izzy judges. At 29, Smith is the youngest journalist to earn an Izzy Award.”