When the video of Chicago cop-cum-murderer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times in the street like a dog finally surfaced, it was a double revelation. The first revelation was about Van Dyke, but the video makes that obvious. The second revelation was about Chicago, about their cops, about how easily that video could have remained concealed so that no one ever knew the lies, saw the killing, realized how Rahm’s Second City labored to keep its secrets.
While it’s not the full answer by a long shot, considering that the first name isn’t Emmanuel, it’s more than we would ordinarily expect to get: three Chicago cops have been indicted for their complicity in the cover-up of McDonald’s murder.
Three longtime police officers were charged on Tuesday in connection with the death of Laquan McDonald, the black teenager whose fatal shooting in 2014 at the hands of a white Chicago officer ignited intense scrutiny over police conduct and transparency.
The officers were indicted on state felony counts of conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice. Among the claims were that they provided false reports about how Mr. McDonald, 17, behaved when he encountered Officer Van Dyke on a Southwest Side street one evening in October 2014; and that the officers went so far as to work together to sidestep interviewing at least three witnesses whose accounts of events would have conflicted with the official police version.
Curiously, the New York Times article fails to mention the names of the bad cops until the penultimate paragraph. When they write about a person accused of a crime, the name invariably appears in the first or, at worst, second graf. Not this time, but the names of the cops matter, so here, from the caption of the indictment, are the three cops whose conduct enabled Van Dyke to conceal his killing for so long.
Are they guilty? Nope. Presumed innocent, just like any other defendants. But they aren’t any more special than any other defendants whose names are prominently noted. The Times’ description of their conduct is somewhat underwhelming as well.
On the evening of the shooting, numerous police officers had responded to a 911 call of a man with a knife trying to break into vehicles. Among half a dozen officers who were following Mr. McDonald, either on foot or in squad cars, Officer Van Dyke was the only one to fire his gun.
But other officers — including the three charged on Tuesday — backed up Officer Van Dyke’s account that Mr. McDonald had moved menacingly toward him with a knife and swung the weapon. The dashboard video contradicted those accounts, and showed Mr. McDonald, who was clutching a knife, seeming to veer away from the police when Officer Van Dyke began firing his weapon. The shooting continued as Mr. McDonald lay crumpled on the street.
There being video, the qualified “seeming to veer away” comes off as
slightly completely disingenuous. The special prosecutor wasn’t nearly as delicate:
“These defendants lied about what occurred during a police-involved shooting in order to prevent independent criminal investigators from learning the truth,” said Patricia Brown Holmes, a special prosecutor who announced the new charges. “The indictment makes clear that it is unacceptable to obey an unofficial code of silence.”
Have we finally reached the stage of meaningful accountability? Before video was ubiquitous, Van Dyke would not only have remained unindicted for murder. but probably would have gotten a medal for bravery. Back then, the cop’s story was the only story that mattered, and in the absence of some cop snitching on his blue bro, there was essentially no chance anyone would have questioned Van Dyke’s claim that he feared for his life.
But indicting the killer is just step one in the process of accountability. This indictment reflects step two, indicting the officers who wrote “official reports” to cover up the lie.
So have we now reached critical mass in exposing the conspiracy of the blue wall of silence? Well no. It is, as Greg Prickett argued, a positive and important step that cops are indicted at all for their crimes. And it’s another positive step that cops who engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the crime are indicted.
But these three cops engaged in an active conspiracy, affirmatively prepared false reports for the purpose of covering up a murder. They were not, however, the only cops on the scene. What about the others?
The call to fire the officers broadened the departmental fallout as the force struggles to restore public trust.
The seven officers recommended for firing were accused of making false reports. They had backed up Officer Van Dyke’s account that Mr. McDonald had moved menacingly toward him with a knife. But their story was contradicted by the video of the shooting; while Mr. McDonald had a knife, he seemed to be veering away from the police when Officer Van Dyke shot him, and the gunfire continued after the teenager collapsed to the ground.
Does this cover every cop on the scene, every cop who saw a murder take place before his eyes? Does loss of job sufficiently address problem of cops, the guys we pay to enforce the law, covering up a crime when it’s perpetrated by one of their own? What about the cops who didn’t write official reports, but just kept their yap shut about the fact that they stood there and watched a murder and did nothing?
Given that, historically, we would never have learned anything other than how Laquan McDonald deserved to die at the hand of hero cop Jason Van Dyke, we’ve come a long way. And the indictment of cops complicit in the cover up adds yet another significant layer to addressing killer cops and those who love them too much. But we’ve still got a ways to go. Cops who say nothing lie by omission, if not commission. As they’re sworn officers of the law, they don’t get a free pass to lie about crime, even when it’s one of their own.
And then there’s the big issue, whether anyone, Van Dyke or his enabling mutts, gets convicted. There will be an expert to explain to the jury why it was completely, objectively reasonable for Van Dyke to fear for his life from Laquan McDonald because of the confluence of Tueller Drill and the Reasonably Scared Cop Rule. Whether this inures to the benefit of this conspiracy of three enablers is another matter.