By now, surely many have read or heard about the release of the gruesome dashboard camera videos of Chicago Police Department officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. But while mourning this brutal shooting, few are talking about the police cover up at the center of the story. The release of the video showing Laquan’s murder unfolded in a manner that is tragically typical. The City’s vigorous efforts to hide the videos, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s failure to file charges against the officer for over a year (until the video aired, forcing her hand), and the false claims by the officers on the scene to justify the shooting are all commonplace. The officers’ brazen effort to hide their crime by illegally destroying a videotape of the shooting captured on a local Burger King’s surveillance camera is also typical. The big difference is that, in this case, the police cover up was revealed.
Chicago is a city with more fatal police shootings than anywhere else in the country. But Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority (“IPRA”) has reviewed nearly 400 police involved shootings since 2007 and found only one of them to be unjustified. This is because IPRA almost universally accepts the police version of events without question. On the night Laquan McDonald was shot, the police cover up version of events was that Laquan was lunging at the police with a knife, leaving the officers no choice but to defend themselves. The videos, of course, show nothing of the sort. Instead, Laquan was rapidly walking away from the police officers when he was gunned down. How could IPRA not have viewed the videos and noticed the blatant discrepancy between the videos and the police cover up version?
And here’s something missing from all of the press around the incident: where are the written police reports? For every incident requiring police intervention – certainly for every police shooting – the officers on the scene write police reports about what happened. The reports are written immediately around the time of the event and include a narrative of the events. At least some of the involved officers sign off on the report’s content.
So where are the police reports of the Laquan McDonald shooting? What was the officers’ narrative, and who signed off on that version? The police reports would reveal one of three things: (1) if the reports contain a true description of Officer Van Dyke’s baseless shooting, then why didn’t IPRA and the State’s Attorney’s Office take action? (2) if the reports are false, contradicting the videos to assert the officers’ bogus self-defense claim, then why are the officers who perpetuated that lie not being prosecuted alongside Van Dyke? or (3) if the officers failed to follow required protocol and write a report at all, why was their cover up scheme condoned almost immediately? It is not enough to just prosecute the shooter in this case. Those who participate in the police cover up of what appears to be a cold-blooded murder must be prosecuted as well.
Without true accountability, this problem of police brutalization and police cover ups will continue. Online news outlet The Daily Beast is currently investigating other recent killings by the Chicago police, comparing the police, media, and IPRA versions of events with the autopsy reports – they are looking for the other Laquan McDonalds who are likely out there under this broken system. And it’s important to remember that the police cover up is not a phenomenon unique to Chicago. We’ve seen it play out again and again around the country, as videos show a very different version of police shootings than the story told by the officers. The culture of police violence and the “blue wall” code of silence are national problems. The question of how to make police accountability boards effective is a national conundrum. The questions of when and how to release police videos are questions that all police departments must face. The bottom line is, in Chicago and around the country, to stop the police violence we must have accountability for all police officers who perpetuate and condone unlawful police violence.