As published by Chicago Tribune
The fatal shooting of African-American teenager Laquan McDonald by a white Chicago police officer garnered scant attention when it happened in October 2014, even though it occurred in the midst of a national outcry over the questionable killings of minority suspects.
It wasn’t until the city’s unusual decision in April to approve a $5 million settlement for McDonald’s family that details began to surface of a disturbing video that allegedly shows the officer firing 16 rounds into McDonald’s body, many as he lay prone on the ground.
Now, as a federal criminal probe of the incident continues, the final, violent moments of McDonald’s life are poised to finally be broadcast around the world.
In a packed Daley Center courtroom Thursday, a Cook County judge ordered the release of the police dashboard cam video by Wednesday, saying in an 18-page ruling that lawyers for the city had failed to prove that making the recording public would jeopardize any ongoing investigation.
Judge Franklin Valderrama also rejected the city’s attempts to delay his order pending an emergency appeal.
Within hours, the city did an abrupt about-face, dropping its court fight and saying it would comply with the judge’s order by making the potentially inflammatory video public before Thanksgiving.
As recently as last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had said it would be inappropriate to release the video in the midst of a pending criminal investigation. In a statement emailed to reporters Thursday, however, the mayor said he hoped prosecutors would bring their investigation to a conclusion by the time the video is released “so Chicago can begin to heal.”
“Police officers are entrusted to uphold the law, and to provide safety to our residents,” the mayor said. “In this case unfortunately, it appears an officer violated that trust at every level.”
The officer, who has been identified by the Tribune as Jason Van Dyke, remains on paid desk duty pending the outcome of the probe. His lawyer, Daniel Herbert, said Thursday that he would have preferred that the footage not become public but cautioned that it shows only one perspective of a case that is not clear-cut.
“The video is graphic, disturbing and difficult to watch, as any video of a man being shot to death would be,” Herbert said. “It’s impossible from viewing the video to determine exactly what my client was experiencing at the time in which he fired the shots. … It’s not showing from his eyes, which is an important distinction.”
City Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton has told aldermen the video shows the officer opening fire on McDonald as the 17-year-old walked along Pulaski Road in the Archer Heights neighborhood. The disturbing images played a key role in the city’s decision to compensate the teen’s family before a lawsuit was even brought, Patton told the city’s Finance Committee in April.
McDonald was behaving erratically and refusing police commands to drop a 4-inch folding knife. The police union has maintained the officer fired in fear of his life because the teen lunged at him and his partner with the knife.
Lawyers for McDonald’s family said Thursday that McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, has not seen the video but understands that it’s crucial for the public to know the truth of what happened that night.
“We’ve talked to her at length about this,” attorney Michael Robbins told reporters outside the courtroom. “What mother would want to see the execution of her son over and over again on the nightly news or on YouTube? She is in therapy, she is in counseling and does not want to see it.”
Speaking to the Tribune, McDonald’s uncle, Shyrell Johnson, said he had mixed feelings about the video’s release. While he’s confident the video will show that Van Dyke was not justified in shooting McDonald, he lamented that having his nephew’s death showcased worldwide on the Internet and cable news networks will be extremely difficult for the family.
“It’s overwhelming because we have to deal with the pain and suffering,” Johnson said.
A lawsuit brought earlier this year by independent journalist and activist Brandon Smith accused the Police Department of violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act by refusing to release the video and other documents related to McDonald’s shooting.
Beginning in March, the Tribune had also filed a series of FOIA requests for the video to the Police Department, the city’s law department and the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates shootings that involve police officers. The requests to all three agencies were denied.
Valderrama’s detailed ruling was based on a careful reading of the 2010 amendment to the Illinois statute that states that an ongoing investigation only qualifies as an exemption to public disclosure of records if the agency that received the request is the one conducting the probe, experts in open records law told the Tribune.
Margaret Kwoka, an assistant professor at the University of Denver‘s Sturm College of Law, said that because the law is so clear, the city would have been fighting an uphill battle on appeal. She also said public relations likely played a big role in the decision not to move forward, especially given the national focus on police-involved deaths of civilians.
“Police departments are being very cautious about how they treat these cases,” said Kwoka, who previously taught law at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. “They’re being pushed to be more transparent. In this case they probably decided it was not going to be a winner, and it was not worth the public relations hit they would take by continuing to keep fighting the video’s release.”
Van Dyke and his partner were on patrol Oct. 20, 2014, when they received an emergency call to the 4100 block of South Pulaski Road, where McDonald was acting erratically outside a Burger King restaurant and refusing police commands to drop the knife, records show.
Officers trailed McDonald for nearly half a mile that night, from a trucking yard where he had been breaking into vehicles through the parking lot of a Burger King and onto busy Pulaski Road. As officers awaited backup units armed with Tasers, they tried to corral McDonald to keep him away from passers-by. At one point, McDonald used the knife to slash the front tire of a squad car trying to block his path.
Within moments of arriving at the scene, Van Dyke jumped out of his squad car with his gun drawn and opened fire on McDonald, killing him, city officials have said.
Lawyers for the McDonald family said the officer emptied his semi-automatic. None of the five other officers there fired a shot, according to city officials.
At the scene that night, Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden said the officer had fired in fear of his life after McDonald lunged at him with the weapon. All Camden said about the teen’s wounds was that he had been struck in the chest.
But documents from the Cook County medical examiner’s office show McDonald was shot 16 times, including in the scalp, neck, both sides of his chest, back, both arms, and his right hand and leg. The bullets left about two dozen entrance and exit wounds over the teen’s body.
McDonald also had PCP, or phencyclidine, in his system when he died, the documents show. Also known as “angel dust,” PCP can cause its user to become aggressive and combative.
The Tribune in April first revealed that Van Dyke was the officer who shot and killed McDonald after city officials refused to disclose his identity, citing a provision in its union contract that bars the city from identifying officers unless they’re convicted of a crime or the police board rules on their case.
A union official said Thursday the release of the video should have been delayed while federal authorities decide whether criminal charges should be filed against Van Dyke.
“The main thing is that we’re disappointed that it’s being released while there’s an ongoing investigation,” field Tom McDonagh said.
In the hallway outside Valderrama’s courtroom, Smith, the journalist who brought the lawsuit against the city, said he hoped the video release would finally paint a clear record of what led to McDonald’s shooting.
“I think the public has the right to be angry about what happened that day,” Smith said. “This is about justice. This is about transparency. … We have a duty to hold accountable the people who protect us.”