The images on the famous police dashcam video are very troubling.
Laquan McDonald, loping along, a small knife in his hand, angling away from officers attempting to arrest him.
Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke advancing on McDonald and, only about six seconds after exiting his squad car, emptying his gun into McDonald, spinning him around and leaving him fatally wounded on the street.
Van Dyke’s murder trial, now in the jury selection phase at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, will focus mostly on what happened in those six seconds — what did each man do, instant by instant, step by step, in that fatal interval? Was Van Dyke’s decision to use lethal force justified on that October night in 2014? Or did he cross the line into criminality?
But what makes this story much more troubling than simply the idea that a lone officer might have unnecessarily, even wantonly killed a suspect is what happened in the aftermath.
Van Dyke’s partner, Officer Joseph Walsh, told investigators that Van Dyke “backed up, attempting to maintain a safe distance between himself and McDonald” but that McDonald “continued to advance on the officers” and that he “swung the knife toward the officers in an aggressive manner.” Walsh added that McDonald was “attempting to kill them when the shots were fired.”
This account was strikingly at odds with the video evidence. The images clearly show Van Dyke was not backing up before he fired but edging forward. McDonald was not brandishing his knife at police but holding it below his waist on the side of his body away from the officers.
Officer Daphne Sebastian said that “McDonald turned toward (Walsh and Van Dyke) and continued to wave the knife,” and that he “continued to advance on the officers.”
No. The video shows McDonald didn’t turn toward the officers, that he was swinging the knife at his side as he walked, not waving it, and that he was a full lane of traffic away from the officers, increasing that distance, when Van Dyke shot him.
Officer Dora Fontaine told investigators that “McDonald was walking sideways, with his body facing east toward officers Van Dyke and Walsh … (he) raised his right arm toward officer Van Dyke as if attacking.”
The video shows that McDonald was facing south, the direction he was walking from police, and that he never raised his right arm, let alone raised it at Van Dyke.
Officer Ricardo Viramontes reported that McDonald “turned toward Van Dyke and his partner,” and that, after he was shot, McDonald “continued to move, attempting to get back up.”
McDonald barely twitched after the first shot dropped him.
According to investigatory notes, Van Dyke told investigators that McDonald was swinging his knife at Van Dyke “in an aggressive, exaggerated manner,” raising it above his shoulder. Van Dyke said he believed this indicated McDonald was “going to try and take my life away from me.” He said he then backpedaled, fired, and continued firing because McDonald “appeared to be attempting to get up.”
And yes, it all happened quickly. Human memory is imperfect. But when every faulty memory just happens to line up with a version of events that vindicates Van Dyke and exaggerates the threat posed by McDonald, it’s fair to call these accounts not just lies, but evidence of a culture of concealment that infects the trust between police and the communities that most need them.
Even worse is that the department higher-ups viewed the dashcam video several days later and raised no alarms about the stark discrepancies between the images and the officers’ accounts. Even with the luxury of hindsight and the ability to review the video in painstaking detail, the brass OK’d the manifestly false police reports.
“Officer Van Dyke fired his weapon in fear of his life when the offender while armed with a knife continued to approach and refused all verbal direction,” wrote Deputy Chief David McNaughton.
McDonald’s death is the tragedy. The cover-up is the scandal.
We know that police officers are human and they have difficult, stressful jobs. The question isn’t whether they make mistakes every so often — they always have and always will — or even whether, technically, in this instance, Van Dyke erred. The question that will loom over the upcoming verdict either way is, how do officers and city officials address those mistakes in a way that preserves and enhances the overall integrity of law enforcement?
Here, the city hid the damning video from public view for 13 months and took action only in response to the uproar.
County prosecutors charged Van Dyke with murder just hours before the video was about to be released. It took nearly two more months for the department to put Walsh and responding Detective David March on desk duty. Not until June 2017 were they charged with conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice.
Officer Thomas Gaffney, who was on the scene and allegedly falsely reported that McDonald had injured officers prior to the shooting, also was indicted. The three are scheduled to go on trial in late November in a case with perhaps more ramifications than the Van Dyke trial.
And although the city’s Office of Inspector General recommended that 11 officers up and down the ranks be fired for their conduct related to the shooting, the special grand jury investigating the case disbanded without further indictments. Many of those implicated have retired or are on paid desk duty pending disciplinary hearings.
You hear a lot about “16 shots,” the number of bullets Van Dyke fired into McDonald (and the title of a terrific new podcast about the case produced by the Tribune and WBEZ). But no one has yet tallied the more important number — the count of the lies that followed.
Region: Chicago,Features,City: Chicago
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September 6, 2018 at 03:27PM