Four Chicago police officers were fired on Thursday evening for covering up the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald. The ruling handed down by the city’s Police Board concluded that Sergeant Stephen Franko and officers Janet Mondragon, Daphne Sebastian, and Ricardo Viramontes lied to exaggerate the threat posed by the black 17-year-old, while omitting key details that contradicted their portrayal. “The overall impression based on this selective telling is both misleading and false,” the Board wrote, according to CNN. “[Taken] on their face, the officers’ accounts depict a scene in which Mr. McDonald was the aggressor and Officer [Jason] Van Dyke the victim — a depiction squarely contradicted by reality.” The four officers — describing the scene in October 2014 when Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times while the teenager was walking away from him — claimed that McDonald lunged at officers with a knife, forcing Van Dyke to open fire. “Put simply, the officers wanted to help their fellow officer,” added the Board, “and so described the incident in a way to put him in the best possible light.”
Van Dyke was convicted last year of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for the killing, and in January was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison. Three other Chicago police officers — former Detective David March, former Officer Joseph Walsh, and Officer Thomas Gaffney — were found not guilty of conspiracy, official misconduct, and obstruction of justice by a judge in January, after being accused of filing false police reports to cover for Van Dyke. The McDonald shooting occurred during the height of nationwide protests against police violence stemming from the killings of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier that year. But McDonald’s death evaded widespread attention for more than 13 months, because city officials withheld footage of the incident until a court order forced them to release it to the public in November 2015. Conveniently, this was months after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s contested reelection bid, which marked the first mayoral runoff in Chicago’s history. Emanuel won, but the fallout from the shooting claimed its first administrative casualties within the next year: Emanuel fired former police superintendent Garry McCarthy that November, and in March 2016, Kim Foxx unseated former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez — who declined to file charges against Van Dyke until just before the footage was released — in the Democratic primary.
That the police were held to a measure of accountability in the McDonald case marks a departure from the norm. Officers rarely face criminal charges for on-duty killings, and are convicted even less frequently. Police lie regularly to exaggerate the danger posed by people they committed violence against, confident that the broad latitude they’re given when they claim to feel threatened will exonerate them. The Chicago Police Department itself was subjected to a Justice Department investigation after the shooting, which concluded that the police department’s officers engaged in a “pattern or practice of unreasonable force” on duty and “tolerated racially discriminatory conduct” that “[undermined] police legitimacy,” particularly in black communities. Until recently, head local prosecutors have benefitted from a fairly low profile, but the McDonald case drew attention to the vast power they have to hold officials accountable for wrongdoing — and how infrequently they do so. Alvarez’s defeat at the polls sparked a wave of “progressive” prosecutors running for office on vows to both hold police accountable and rein in the excesses of the criminal-justice system and mass incarceration. Amidst it all, at least one Chicago official has managed to evade consequences: Last year, in the wake of the discovery of the cover-up, Rahm Emanuel announced that he would not be running for a third term as mayor. Instead, he’s taken a job as a contributing editor at The Atlantic.