06 Dec

Justice Dept. Plans to Investigate Chicago Police After Laquan McDonald Case

Justice Dept. Plans to Investigate Chicago Police After Laquan McDonald Case
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Police officers outside the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel at City Hall last week in Chicago. Some critics have said the authorities, from the police department to City Hall, tried to keep the Laquan McDonald case out of the spotlight as long as possible. Credit Scott Olson/Getty Images
CHICAGO — The Justice Department plans to begin a far-ranging investigation into the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department, part of the continuing fallout over a video released last month showing the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a person familiar with the case said Sunday.

The investigation, similar to those of troubled police departments in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, could be announced as early as this week.

The Justice Department has long had concerns about the Chicago department. But the current scrutiny centers on a controversy that began with a two-paragraph statement a year ago from the Chicago Police Department about the death of a young black man who had been shot 16 times by the police.

“Near the intersection of 4100 S. Pulaski, uniformed officers confronted the armed offender who refused to comply with orders to drop the knife and continued to approach the officers,” said the statement, from Oct. 21, 2014. “As a result of this action, the officer discharged his weapon striking the offender.”

On the night of the shooting, a police union spokesman, Pat Camden, went further, announcing at the scene that Mr. McDonald was “a very serious threat to the officers and he leaves them no choice at that point but to defend themselves.” Mr. Camden said, “He was coming at the officer.”

For months in 2014 and 2015, as police shootings were drawing close scrutiny around the nation, that was all most Chicagoans knew about Mr. McDonald’s death. That changed last month when a county judge ordered that a police video be made public. It showed Mr. McDonald seeming to try to jog or walk past officers, then veering at an angle away from them before being shot, again and again, even as he lay on the pavement.

The video outraged many. Along with anger over the shooting, there is an added element fueling frustration here: a lingering sense that the authorities, from the police department to City Hall, tried to keep the case out of the spotlight as long as possible.

“No person, no sane human being who’s lived in this city, no sane human being, looks at this situation and thinks there weren’t people who knew a lot and refused to divulge it,” said Mariame Kaba, a member of the Chicago-based activist group We Charge Genocide. “That, to me, is a cover-up.”

Critics have raised many questions.

Did Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election fight play a role in his administration’s decision this year to pay $5 million to Mr. McDonald’s family members even before they filed a lawsuit? Why did City Hall include a provision in the settlement to keep the video private at least temporarily? And why did it take Anita Alvarez, the Cook County State’s Attorney, 13 months to charge the police officer involved in the shooting? She waited until hours before the city was forced to release the video to charge the officer, Jason Van Dyke, with first-degree murder.

“People have a lot of questions, and I don’t think this is going away any time soon,” said the Rev. Marshall E. Hatch, who leads a West Side church. “It was almost surreal to think people thought this was a life that could be thrown away and walked over for apparent political advantage.”
The authorities in Chicago insist there was no cover-up.

“Any suggestion that politics played a role in this investigation is patently false,” said Kelley Quinn, a spokeswoman for Mr. Emanuel. Faced with growing criticism and demands for his resignation, Mr. Emanuel wrote an op-ed column in Chicago’s newspapers over the weekend, calling for broad changes at the police department but also laying out a defense of his own role. “What I strongly reject is the suggestion that the videotape of the McDonald shooting was withheld from the public because of the election,” Mr. Emanuel said.

Already, outcry over the case appears to be forcing a change in the way the city handles such cases. Under scrutiny over another case — a police shooting that occurred only days before Mr. McDonald’s death — Mr. Emanuel says that the city will now reverse course from its longstanding practice and release police video from that case sometime this week. The video will show the fatal shooting of Ronald Johnson, 25, on Oct. 12, 2014. Chicago police say Mr. Johnson pointed a gun at officers, but a lawyer for his family said that the video will show that he was running away.

Facing mounting pressure over the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the City of Chicago will release a dash-cam video of police fatally shooting another man, Ronald Johnson III, last year.
By BRENT McDONALD on Publish Date December 6, 2015.

The confrontation with Mr. McDonald, who was 17, began after 9 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2014 when he was stopped by the police after a report of someone breaking into vehicles on this city’s Southwest Side. Officers said Mr. McDonald had a three-inch folding knife and ignored calls to drop it. Instead, they said, he walked and jogged away and at one point slashed the tire of a police car.

A growing number of officers followed him for several blocks. A police dashboard camera video, made public on Nov. 24, shows Officer Van Dyke’s police vehicle pulling up just before the shooting began. He fired 16 shots at Mr. McDonald from about 10 feet away, prosecutors have said. No other officer at the scene fired his gun, although at least five corroborated Officer Van Dyke’s version of events — that Mr. McDonald appeared to be coming at them in a threatening way.

After the shooting, the Independent Police Review Authority, a group assigned to review police shootings in Chicago, began investigating. Within two weeks, the city’s information was handed over to prosecutors to conduct their own criminal inquiries.

As lawyers for Mr. McDonald’s mother began looking at the case in late 2014, they say they found puzzling contradictions. Some witnesses disagreed with the police account that Mr. McDonald was coming at Officer Van Dyke. Workers at a nearby Burger King said the police arrived almost immediately after the shooting and began intensely studying a computer that handles the restaurant’s surveillance system.

Later, the Burger King’s surveillance recordings of more than 80 minutes — covering the time of the shooting itself — seemed to have vanished. Ms. Alvarez has said that there is no evidence of tampering and that the camera would not have captured the shooting anyway. Still, a federal investigation, which is continuing, is believed to be looking at questions, including the missing Burger King video, what other officers said at the scene that night, and why police dashboard cameras collected little audio.

By February 2015, the lawyers for Mr. McDonald’s mother had obtained the dashboard camera video itself. Michael Robbins, one of the family’s lawyers, said the lawyers had subpoenaed the video as part of a separate probate case. On Feb. 27 they contacted the city, seeking $16 million before they filed any lawsuit.

As it happened, three days earlier, Mr. Emanuel had learned that he was about to face an intense, six-week test of his leadership. He had failed to get the 50 percent plus 1 vote that he needed to win re-election to a second term outright, and was forced into an April 7 runoff with Jesus G. Garcia. Mr. Emanuel’s campaign was especially vulnerable among some black and Latino voters who had been upset by his administration’s closing of nearly 50 public schools as well as policing and crime.

“If that video would have surfaced around that time, he would have lost the whole support of the black, African-American community in Chicago,” said William Calloway, an activist here.

Mr. Robbins said he believed that the issue unfolded when it did simply because he and his co-counsel were able to assemble their evidence at that point. “How much did politics play in on the city’s end?” Mr. Robbins said. “I don’t know. From our standpoint it was happenstance.”

After a meeting in mid-March, lawyers for the family and the city on March 24 reached an agreement to pay the family $5 million. City Council approval was needed, though, and that body’s next meeting was on April 15, eight days after Mr. Emanuel won re-election.

Chicago law department officials said settlements before lawsuits have even been filed are unusual but not unprecedented. The speed with which negotiations proceeded, the officials said, reflected the wishes of the lawyers for the other side and the nature of the case.

The city included in their settlement with the McDonald family a provision barring release of the video until criminal investigations were complete. Law department officials said that has been standard practice in Chicago for decades so as not to hinder such investigations. In this case, they said, no one expected the investigations to take much longer. City officials also said the family itself was not eager for the police video to be made public.

Mr. Emanuel himself was aware of the case and the video at the point at which a city settlement was being weighed, city law department officials said. Mr. Emanuel’s office did not respond to questions about when the mayor first learned of the case and the video. He has said he did not watch the video until it was released to the public.

On April 15, Chicago’s City Council approved the settlement. Stephen R. Patton, Chicago’s Corporation Counsel, had already told members of the council’s finance committee at a public meeting: “The shooting officer contends, as I understand it, that Mr. McDonald was moving toward him. He was in fear of his life.” He also told them: “The plaintiffs contend very vehemently that Mr. McDonald had been walking away from the police and was continuing to walk away from the police, and they contend that the videotape supports their version of events.”

Requests from the media for the video came, one after the next. At least one Chicago news radio station asked for the video as early as December 2014, a police spokesman said. All the requests were denied. The city argued that the video was exempt from the state’s public records law because it was part of a continuing investigation. A freelance journalist, Brandon Smith, filed suit to see the video — an effort the city’s lawyers continued to fight until the Cook County judge ruled against them on Nov. 19.

After that, Mayor Emanuel changed course. He said the city would no longer fight the release, and urged prosecutors to conclude their investigations. He has since said a task force needs to decide whether to change a policy of keeping evidence private while investigations are going on.

Asked last week whether he would have won re-election in April if the public had seen the McDonald video at the time, Mr. Emanuel grew testy.

“That’s a hypothetical,” he told a crowd gathered to watch him interviewed on stage with Politico at the Willis Tower. “I can’t answer. And that said, I faced the election, faced the voters. They made a decision.”

Matt Apuzzo contributed reporting from Washington.

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