Jurors in the murder trial of Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke watched this past week as his partner on the night of the shooting, Joseph Walsh, stepped down from the witness stand and demonstrated how he said Laquan McDonald menaced police with a knife.
Before that dramatic moment Tuesday, the panel was told in a few brief words that Walsh, who has resigned from the department, was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.
But jurors did not hear then and are not expected to learn during the ongoing trial of the specific allegations underlying those charges: that Walsh was part of an effort by police to cover up the details of McDonald’s death.
While Van Dyke’s trial is tightly focused on whether he was justified in shooting at McDonald 16 times, the broader question of whether the police closed ranks to protect a fellow officer will resound after his fate is decided, in part because Walsh and two other officers are scheduled for trial in the alleged cover-up in November.
But beyond the actions of the low-ranking cops at the scene, officers in the department’s higher ranks either justified the shooting or took little action after viewing chilling dashcam video of McDonald’s shooting, raising questions as to whether the top brass participated in or enabled the code of silence that critics say pervades the department.
For example, just days after the shooting in October 2014, then-Deputy Chief Eddie Johnson watched the video during a meeting with other top department officials and raised no concerns as to whether the shooting was justified, according to sworn testimony from a colleague. About a year and a half later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel promoted Johnson to superintendent.
Officials in the mayor’s office, meanwhile, prevented the public from promptly learning the harsh details of what happened.
Then-Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton negotiated a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family before any lawsuit was filed, and the agreement restricted the video’s release while a criminal investigation into the shooting was underway. City officials fought for more than a year to keep the video under wraps before a judge forced its release.
Controversy over the shooting and the alleged police cover-up has pushed the Emanuel administration into enacting policy changes aimed at stronger discipline and greater transparency in the Police Department, including the wide rollout of body cameras.
But civil rights advocates say department policy still is not strong enough. Though a recently submitted draft of a consent decree that would mandate court-overseen reforms includes provisions taking aim at officer collusion and dishonesty, advocates want further changes that could close off opportunities for the code of silence to survive.
“In the absence of a consent decree that’s got strong provisions, that has the right independent monitor, something like the Laquan McDonald case could easily happen again,” said Sheila Bedi, a Northwestern University law professor and attorney involved in the litigation over the decree.
The city’s widely criticized handling of McDonald’s shooting continues to shape Chicago’s political and legal landscapes, and it is likely to figure prominently in the race to succeed Emanuel, who announced just before Van Dyke’s trial started that he would not seek re-election.
Several candidates played key roles in the shooting’s aftermath, including former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who relieved Van Dyke of his police powers but did not take other strong action. Days after the video finally was released, Emanuel fired McCarthy.
McCarthy told the Tribune that he warned Emanuel about the shooting two days after it happened.
“The 16 shots I knew was going to be a problem, and that’s what I told the mayor,” McCarthy said in a recent interview. “(Emanuel) really was unfazed by it, kinda went on to the next topic.”
Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins did not directly address a question about Emanuel’s purported conversation with McCarthy but touted the city’s efforts at reform.
Defending their own
In the hours after Van Dyke shot McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014, on Pulaski Road near 40th Street, the officer reported that the teenager had advanced on him, swung the knife and attacked him. Van Dyke also said he backpedaled before the shooting and that McDonald appeared to be trying to get up from the street as the officer kept firing.
Van Dyke’s narrative of the shooting was reinforced by colleagues who corroborated his account of McDonald as a dangerous aggressor. But there was a piece of evidence that clashed with those accounts – video from the dashboard camera of a police vehicle that captured the incident with a clarity rare in police shootings.
The Emanuel administration fought attempts to pry the video loose and kept it hidden until a judge ordered its release in November 2015. The footage showed that McDonald veered away from officers in the moments before the shooting and that, after being hit, the teen lay nearly motionless on the street as the officer pelted him with more rounds. Prosecutors say Van Dyke fired for about 15 seconds.
The footage of the white officer shooting the black teenager sparked heated protests in Chicago that were rooted in long-standing tension between the police and African-Americans, and Van Dyke was charged with murder.
A year and a half later, prosecutors charged three more cops — former Detective David March, Officer Thomas Gaffney and Walsh — in the alleged cover-up.
Prosecutors alleged that the officers coordinated their efforts with Van Dyke and others by writing virtually identical reports to make it appear that the shooting was justified. Among the many claims of the police noted in the indictment, it cites Walsh’s contentions that McDonald swung the knife and appeared to be trying to get up as Van Dyke continued to shoot him. The indictment alleges that March, the detective, submitted a report saying the video was “consistent with the accounts of all of the witnesses.”
The officers have pleaded not guilty.
In addition to the criminal cases, city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson conducted a disciplinary investigation that found a broad effort to justify the shooting. His recommendations led the department to move to fire five other officers who were at the scene — Van Dyke, Sgt. Stephen Franko and officers Janet Mondragon, Daphne Sebastian and Ricardo Viramontes.
But the tendency to defend the shooting extended well above the patrol cops at the scene, as some higher-ranking officers believed it was justified, according to a trove of records of Ferguson’s investigation obtained by the Tribune.
The top brass, meanwhile, saw the police video almost immediately but took little dramatic action.
Two days after the shooting, McCarthy huddled with other top officers and watched the footage. Neither McCarthy nor anyone else suggested that the shooting might have been unjustified, though McCarthy did express concern about the number of shots, a colleague told disciplinary investigators.
McCarthy told the Tribune that the purpose of the gathering was not to discuss whether the shooting was justified but to consider department policy and officer tactics.
The former superintendent said he took little action beyond relieving Van Dyke of his police powers because disciplinary investigations are largely delegated to civilian oversight officials and he didn’t want to interfere in their ongoing inquiry. McCarthy said he didn’t even look at police reports from the shooting whose accounts differed from the scene captured on video.
Johnson, who at the time was a deputy chief, watched the video at a different meeting with other top police officials, this one some 10 days after McDonald died. One officer who was in the meeting, Lt. Osvaldo Valdez, later told disciplinary investigators that no one raised any concerns.
“There was never no question whether·the shooting was justified,” Valdez said under oath. “Everyone agreed that Officer Van Dyke used the force necessary to eliminate the threat, and that’s pretty much it.”
Now superintendent, Johnson declined through a spokesman to comment and referenced a past statement in which he disputed Valdez’s characterization of the briefing without offering details. Collins said Johnson, who has led Emanuel’s bid to reform the department, “has long since proven his commitment to reform and to rebuilding the bonds of trust with residents.”
Civil rights advocates have complained that higher-ranking cops involved in the case exited the force while those in the lowest ranks faced official consequences.
For example, the inspector general’s office found that Eugene Roy was “incompetent in the performance of his duties” and recommended in August 2016 that he be fired. Roy had supervised the investigation into the shooting as the commander of the Area Central detective division, and he was promoted to deputy chief and then chief of detectives after McDonald’s death.
Johnson never acted on the recommendation against Roy, who was nearing the department’s mandatory retirement age. Roy retired a month later.
Lance Northcutt, an attorney who represents both Roy and Valdez, said decorum orders in the pending criminal cases prevented him from commenting on the disciplinary investigation. “We look forward to the opportunity when a full and fair account of their actions can occur,” Northcutt said.
One of the cops who faces trial in November excoriated the actions of the top brass in a sworn statement to disciplinary investigators, complaining that higher-ranking officers were promoted while he faced potential disciplinary consequences.
“No one voiced any reservations or concerns to me regarding this incident or this investigation,” said March, the lead detective on the case. “I was informed that the entire command staff concurred with the findings and conclusions of my investigation.”
The inspector general’s office has alleged that March was the “critical touchstone” of the cover-up and that he parroted the officers’ false reports. March, who has resigned, could not be reached for comment.
A swift settlement
Beyond the Police Department, top Emanuel administration officials were promptly made aware that the shooting could pose a problem.
On Dec. 8, 2014, Scott Ando — then the head of the now-defunct Independent Police Review Authority — sent an email to Janey Rountree, City Hall’s deputy chief of staff for public safety. The email linked to a news release in which two local watchdogs suggested video might contradict claims that the officer’s life was in danger.
The next morning, top city attorney Patton emailed Emanuel’s chief of staff, senior adviser and others with an update on the McDonald situation.
“I have again asked our lawyers to be on the lookout for a complaint in that matter and to notify us immediately if and when a complaint is filed,” Patton wrote.
In early March 2015 – as Emanuel was in the last weeks of his mayoral race against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia – the McDonald family’s lawyers formally approached the city about a settlement.
That same month, police officers including Valdez met with the Police Department’s lawyer and Tom Platt, then the city’s deputy corporation counsel and now Metra’s director of litigation. The group watched the video, and no one expressed concerns about the justification for the shooting, according to Valdez.
“It was very apparent that they were more concerned with the perception – or how that video would be perceived,” Valdez said.
Platt could not be reached for comment.
Late in March 2015, lawyers for McDonald’s family sent the city’s attorneys a letter threatening a lawsuit and mentioning the discrepancies between the video and the official reports. Days before the election, the lawyers reached an agreement in principle on the settlement.
A week after Emanuel’s re-election, the City Council made the rare move of approving a settlement without a lawsuit ever being filed. The agreement included a provision restricting the release of materials related to the case while a criminal investigation was ongoing.
In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times after he resigned in 2017, Patton said he recommended the settlement so a lawsuit wouldn’t interfere with the criminal investigation of an action he believed “constituted a murder.”
But at a Finance Committee meeting before the vote, Patton told the aldermen that Van Dyke was acting within the scope of his employment.
In his interview with the Tribune, McCarthy accused Patton of orchestrating a cover-up by glossing over the potentially criminal nature of the shooting to the City Council in order to secure the settlement quickly.
“You ever hear of City Hall moving that fast on anything? Try to get a permit for a parade and see how long that takes,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy’s statements on the McDonald scandal have changed in tone in recent months. In comments at the City Club of Chicago in 2016, he said Emanuel had no control of the timeline for the criminal investigation into the shooting and said, “The mayor did not have the capacity to prevent that video from going out.”
Patton forwarded Tribune questions to City Hall. Collins described McCarthy’s narrative about Patton as a “ridiculous theory” and noted that the former superintendent had previously defended City Hall’s approach to the video. He said Patton had been “straightforward” about the shooting.
Breaking the code
The allegations of a cover-up in the McDonald case add to a long history of similar accusations.
Nonetheless, faced with consistent questioning as to whether Chicago police abide by a code of silence, the Emanuel administration has given conflicting responses.
As the crisis deepened in 2015, the mayor acknowledged the code in a contrite speech. But in a deposition in March 2018, Johnson said he was unaware of a code of silence. Meanwhile, lawyers from Emanuel’s Law Department, tasked with defending against lawsuits alleging police misconduct, have denied the code of silence’s existence.
But the U.S. Department of Justice found unequivocally that officers observed the code in its damning January 2017 report, which painted the police force as needlessly violent, poorly trained and badly supervised. The Justice Department found a “pervasive cover-up culture among CPD officers, which the (disciplinary authorities) accept as an immutable fact rather than something to root out.”
“I don’t know how anyone who’s been paying attention, who’s read our report, could think there’s any question” that the code exists, said Christy Lopez, a former Justice Department lawyer who helped lead the federal investigation in Chicago. “It’s sort of silly to continue to argue about it.”
In the aftermath of the McDonald scandal, the Emanuel administration introduced a new policy mandating the release of footage of police shootings within three months. The policy, however, has not always functioned as advertised, as the courts have blocked the release of videos of shootings that led to criminal charges.
The department also has released video selectively. The day after the fatal shooting of Maurice Granton Jr. in June, the department released footage that officials said showed Granton with a gun before he was killed. A month and a half later, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability released body-camera video that painted a more complete picture, showing Granton was trying to scale a fence, with no gun visible in his hand, when an officer fired.
The officer reported that Granton had shot at him, and police recovered a gun, though a lawyer for the dead man’s family said it was 20 to 25 feet from where he fell.
Collins defended the video policy, saying it is “light years from the decades-old city policy of not releasing any evidence, including video evidence, until after criminal proceedings were complete.”
The Emanuel administration and the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan submitted a proposed consent decree this month that would guide sweeping changes to the department — an effort that differs from unsuccessful past attempts to reform the force in that a judge will have the authority to enforce change.
The draft of the decree includes several portions taking aim at official secrecy and officer collusion. For example, it calls for disciplinary action for officers who interfere in investigations or collude with other cops, and it requires the department to ensure that cops who witness a shooting don’t talk with each other before they are interviewed by investigators.
But civil rights advocates have called for further reforms. For example, some advocates want to eliminate the department policy of keeping disciplinary investigators from talking to cops who shoot people for at least 24 hours afterward.
Advocates said the code of silence’s elimination must be a top priority.
“Unless you’re able to address the code of silence, it’s going to be impossible to make the broad culture change that you need to make there,” Lopez said.
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