This past Saturday, a group of activists circled Chicago’s City Hall carrying an empty black casket to protest the shooting of Laquan McDonald by Chicago cops; the latest in a string of protests that have shut down the streets of the city since dashcam video of the shooting was made public last week.
17-year-old McDonald was shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke in October of 2014 after police found the teen, reportedly high on PCP, walking the streets at night with a 4-inch knife. According to the official police report, McDonald lunged at Van Dyke with the knife, who fired in self-defense, shooting the teen once in the chest.
A month later, the story was fading from public memory, until a whistleblower from the city government told journalist Jamie Kalven and attorney Craig Futterman that McDonald’s death “wasn’t being vigorously investigated,” and that cops possessed a “horrific” video of the shooting. This video was finally released 13 months after the shooting, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in August by freelance journalist Brandon Smith.
The dashcam video clearly shows Van Dyke shooting McDonald as he walked away, contradicting the original story offered by the police. Further investigation uncovered the official autopsy report, which showed that McDonald was not shot once, but 16 times. The autopsy shows that the teen was shot in the head, chest, back, arms, and legs, a reality far removed from the single shot that police said killed him.
Although officials had possession of the video and the autopsy report within days of the shooting, no charges were filed against Van Dyke until the video was released this month. Attorneys for the McDonald family were able to view this evidence, and the City Council quickly approved a $5 million settlement for the family, on the condition that they keep the video confidential.
Allegations are now emerging that not only did the city fight to keep the video hidden, they actively attempted to cover up the shooting. “The real issue here is, this terrible thing happened, how did our governmental institutions respond?” Kalven said. “And from everything we’ve learned, compulsively at every level, from the cops on the scene to the highest levels of government, they responded by circling the wagons and by fabricating a narrative that they knew was completely false.”
Although the dashcam video clearly shows the shooting, the audio from the recording is missing, so that nothing said by cops on the scene can be heard. Police superintendent Garry McCarthy said that the audio should have been recorded, but “it doesn’t exist” due to “technical difficulties.” Police also released four more dashcam videos from other police cars on the scene, but the audio from each of these videos are also plagued by the same sort of “technical difficulties.”
Surveillance video from a nearby Burger King, which recorded some of the events of that night, also disappeared due to mysterious “technical difficulties.” On the night of the shooting, manager Jay Darshane allowed cops to view the surveillance video from the evening. The next day, when investigators from Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority showed up to view the tapes, they found that seven different video files, containing a total of 86 minutes of footage, were all missing.
“The fact that the police entered the Burger King restaurant without a warrant or a subpoena, accessed the system upon demanding the password, and then left and that 86 minutes or so of video is missing from all 11 cameras is something that gave us a great deal of concern,” Michael Robbins, an attorney for the McDonald family, said. “There is no credible explanation for why this video is missing.”
Police Superintendent McCarthy said that allegations that cops erased the footage were “absolutely not true.” State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said that “forensic testing” by city officials found that the evidence was not tampered with. Regardless, attorney Craig Futterman maintains that “the officer went into the Burger King, and he erased all seven of those files. The irony is, though, that the Burger King surveillance video was running while the officer erased them. And so there’s a videotape of the officer erasing the video.”
After the dashcam video was released, Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a press conference to discuss the shooting. “One individual needs to be held accountable,” he said, directing blame for the shooting solely at Van Dyke. Brandon Smith, whose lawsuit made the video public, was denied access to this conference, however. Forced to watch a video feed from outside City Hall, Smith found himself unable to ask the mayor hard questions about the shooting, including whether the city would take steps to “reform the wider culture of policing that leads to 300 shootings in 5 years.”
Kalven said that Emanuel’s “reframing” of the events of the shooting was “essentially false.” City officials “maintained a false narrative about those events, and they did it for a year, when it could have been corrected almost immediately,” he explained. “They spent a year stonewalling any calls for transparency, any information about the case.”
“This case shows the operation of the code of silence in the Chicago Police Department,” Futterman said. “From the very start, you have officers and detectives conspiring to cover up the story. The question is, why are they not being charged?”