Video Just the Latest Stain on Chicago Police's Decades-Long Record of Misconduct

Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a video of an African-American teen being fatally shot by a white police officer Tuesday just hours after authorities charged the veteran cop with murder, all the while trying to head off violent protests city officials feared might result from the images of the teen twisting and falling as he is riddled with bullets.

By Steve Schmadeke and Jason Meisner and Bill Ruthhart

Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a video of an African-American teen being fatally shot by a white police officer Tuesday just hours after authorities charged the veteran cop with murder, all the while trying to head off violent protests city officials feared might result from the images of the teen twisting and falling as he is riddled with bullets.

Moments after Emanuel and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy released the video that the city had fought to withhold for much of the year, the footage quickly spread across the Internet and national television broadcasts.

The October 2014 video shows 17-year-old Laquan McDonald shot repeatedly as he walked down the middle of a Southwest Side street, part of the evidence to support allegations that Officer Jason Van Dyke fired 16 shots into the teen's body in 14 seconds.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder Tuesday, saying she made the announcement earlier than planned out of concern for "public safety." She did not elaborate on those concerns, but Emanuel had urged her office to wrap up its investigation before the city would be forced to comply with a Cook County judge's Wednesday deadline to release the dashboard camera video.

For more than a week, concerns swirled that the release of the video could prompt widespread protests like those following police-involved deaths of African-Americans in places such as Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. Anticipating the likelihood of street demonstrations here, Emanuel and McCarthy worked to minimize the public fallout in a city with a long, sordid history of police misconduct.

As the details of the McDonald shooting continued to unfold, McCarthy also moved to address another controversial shooting involving one of his officers. Late Monday, the city's top cop announced that after two months of deliberation, he had decided to move to fire Chicago police Detective Dante Servin for his involvement in the 2012 fatal shooting of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd, in an off-duty incident behind Servin's West Side home.

Emanuel and McCarthy have sought to cast both incidents as isolated acts by rogue officers in a department filled with police who serve and protect the public in good faith.

"Jason Van Dyke violated both the standards of professionalism that come from being a police officer, but also basic moral standards that bind our community together," Emanuel said at a late afternoon news conference. "Jason Van Dyke will be judged in a court of law. That's exactly how it should be."

But that City Hall narrative comes against a backdrop of decades' worth of police torture and wrongful conviction cases, corruption, and slapdash, ineffectual oversight practices in shootings and other excessive force actions. Time and again, the department has quickly cleared officers of allegations, only to have civil litigation later reveal video and other evidence that painted a much darker picture of police conduct.

Still, in charging Van Dyke, Alvarez said she has never seen anything like the videotaped shooting in her three decades in law enforcement. Calling the video "graphic," "violent" and "chilling," she said it "no doubt will tear at the hearts of all Chicagoans. ... To watch a 17-year-old young man die in such a violent manner is deeply disturbing."

The graphic nature of the video of McDonald's death was never in dispute. When it was released Tuesday, it showed McDonald, who authorities said had PCP in his system when he died, briskly walking down the middle of Pulaski Road when Van Dyke fired from the teen's left-hand side. The video did not show McDonald lunging toward officers, as a police union spokesman previously has suggested.

Alvarez said several civilians witnessed the shooting. One motorist told authorities he never saw McDonald lunge at any officers or do anything else threatening before he was shot. McDonald also made no threatening motions while on the ground afterward, Alvarez said the motorist told authorities.

"The officer's actions were not justified and were not a proper use of deadly force," Alvarez told reporters.

In court Tuesday, prosecutors said Van Dyke was less than an hour into his overnight shift when a radio call at 9:47 p.m. reported a citizen was detaining McDonald after he had been caught breaking into trucks and stealing radios in a parking lot near 41st Street and Kildare Avenue.

Another unit responded first and said over the radio that McDonald was walking away with a knife in his hand, Assistant State's Attorney William Delaney said. At 9:56 p.m., a beat car reported that McDonald had "popped the tire on their squad car," Delaney said. The dash-cam on a squad car that captured McDonald being shot showed the teen jogging down Pulaski waving a knife in his right hand, Delaney said.

Van Dyke and his partner got out of their marked Chevrolet Tahoe with their guns drawn, and Van Dyke took at least one step toward the teen and opened fire from about 10 feet away, Delaney said. He opened fire less than 30 seconds after arriving, prosecutors said.

"McDonald's arm jerks and his whole body spins around and falls to the ground," Delaney said.

Alvarez also relayed what tens of thousands of Chicagoans would watch for themselves hours later: The video showed McDonald lying on the ground while shots continued to strike his body and the pavement near him, with puffs of debris kicking up and his arms and body jerking as he was hit. Van Dyke fired all of the rounds in his gun and was in the act of reloading when his partner told him to hold his fire, prosecutors said.

The partner then approached McDonald's body and kicked the knife away, they said. According to interviews with other officers at the scene, McDonald never spoke to them or responded to commands to drop the knife, prosecutors said.

Judge Donald Panarese Jr. ordered Van Dyke held without bail until the judge can view the video Monday.

"I believe it's pertinent for a bond hearing," Panarese said of the video. "I'm sorry, but I'm holding you no bail until Monday."

Dressed in a brown sweatshirt and blue jeans, Van Dyke showed no emotion as he was led from the courtroom in custody. His defense attorney said Van Dyke feared for his life the night of the shooting.

Daniel Herbert said people are free to make judgments based on watching the video "from the comfort of their living room on their sofa," but they can't pretend to see what Van Dyke may have seen that night.

"This is a case that can't be tried in the streets, it can't be tried in the media, and it can't be tried on Facebook," Herbert said.

Critics have raised questions about why the investigation took more than a year when the video provides such a stark depiction of what happened. While the mayor and McCarthy said the investigation has been proceeding at a deliberate pace, Alvarez said such investigations are complicated regardless of how straightforward and damaging the video may be.

Alvarez said she had made up her mind weeks ago to file charges against Van Dyke but held off out of cooperation with federal authorities who are conducting an ongoing civil rights investigation.

Visible on the video at the time of the shooting are at least three other Chicago Police Department SUVs in addition to the one shooting the dash-cam footage that the Emanuel administration released Tuesday. Any video that might exist from other police vehicles at the scene was not made public by the mayor's office.

The original Freedom of Information request by freelance journalist Brandon Smith requested all video files "that captured any part of the police response to Laquan McDonald...."

The video that was released was the result of Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama's ruling last week that the Emanuel administration had violated the state's open records law by withholding the dash-cam footage from the freelance journalist.

The Tribune filed its own public records request for the video in April to the Police Department, the city Law Department, and the Independent Police Review Authority. All three agencies denied the request.

The camera footage of the video released Tuesday by City Hall did not have any sound accompanying it. "There was no audio to my knowledge with any of the video that was taken," McCarthy said. "No, it didn't exist."

Asked if that's standard for a police dash-cam, he replied, "There's supposed to be (audio), and it's supposed to happen at a couple different instances. This is one of the things that we are working on."

Absent from remarks given by McCarthy and Emanuel on Tuesday afternoon was any acknowledgment of a systemic problem in the Police Department oversight procedures that the courts have found gives police officers a sense of impunity to break the law and violate citizens' rights.

During the course of his administration, the mayor has echoed the tone of his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, casting police misconduct cases as isolated incidences of lone rogue cops. But public records -- especially court records -- tell a different story of long-standing systemic problems with police oversight that city officials have been loath to confront to this day. In multiple cases since Emanuel took office, the city has been driven to react to misconduct claims only when litigation revealed the existence of troubling video.

Critics have long said city officials have glossed over systemic corruption in the Police Department.

In 2006, University of Chicago research showed a relatively small group of 662 officers -- or about 5 percent of the department at the time -- accounts for the lion's share of misconduct complaints. But the extraordinarily low rate at which investigators sustained complaints -- less than 1 percent -- allowed bad cops to act with virtual impunity.

In 2007, the Tribune published a yearlong investigation into the Police Department's handling of officer-involved shootings. The paper found that police officials rushed to clear cops in shootings, ignoring troubling or contradictory evidence, failing to interview witnesses, delaying blood alcohol testing when officers had been drinking before firing their weapons, and filing spurious charges against the people who had been shot. In the years since, police officials have not instituted significant reforms of the process.

Emanuel has said he inherited a legacy of misconduct problems from the Daley years, but his own administration now has multiple episodes in which the department was slow to act on questionable shootings, including the shootings by Van Dyke, Servin and another officer, Gildardo Sierra.

In a 2012 federal civil trial over the case of an off-duty officer caught on video beating a defenseless female bartender during the Daley administration, the jury found that police officials had tried to cover up the case. The jury delivered a verdict declaring that a systemic "code of silence" existed in the Chicago Police Department to protect rogue officers from facing consequences for their actions.

The Emanuel administration responded to the verdict by trying to make a deal with the bartender to support vacating the verdict in exchange for an immediate payout of her $850,000 jury award without court appeals. At the time, the mayor said the agreement "closes a chapter on something that happened before I was mayor."

The judge in that case overruled the maneuver, saying the city's desire to wipe out the "code of silence" verdict was not in the public's interest.

Late Tuesday night, hundreds of protesters paraded through the Loop, chanting "16 shots" and confronting police.

McCarthy had moved late Monday to address another shooting that previously garnered protest across the city.

For two months, he had weighed whether to move to fire Servin, the detective involved in the 2012 shooting who was acquitted of manslaughter charges. McCarthy, who had previously defended the detective and said he should not have been charged with a crime, insisted Tuesday that his decision to call for Servin to lose his job was not tied to developments in the McDonald case.

"Nonsense," McCarthy said of the suggestion that the timing of his decision was politically motivated. "If you've been at police board meetings, I've been hearing a demand to make a decision. So, here's a case where we're doing what the community wants, I'm making the decision and somebody is going criticize it, saying it's political? C'mon. That's ridiculous."

(c)2015 the Chicago Tribune

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.