The Corrupt System That Killed Laquan McDonald

A Chicago cop now faces murder charges—but will anyone hold his colleagues, his superiors, and elected officials accountable for their failures?

Andrew Nelles / Reuters

Thanks to clear video evidence, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged this week with first-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Nevertheless, thousands of people took to the city’s streets on Friday in protest. And that is as it should be.

The needlessness of the killing is clear and unambiguous:

Yet that dash-cam footage was suppressed for more than a year by authorities citing an investigation. “There was no mystery, no dead-end leads to pursue, no ambiguity about who fired the shots,” Eric Zorn wrote in The Chicago Tribune. “Who was pursuing justice and the truth? What were they doing? Who were they talking to? With whom were they meeting? What were they trying to figure out for 400 days?”

There is no doubt that Officer Van Dyke acted badly. As he faces murder charges, there remains a need to demand accountability for the Chicagoans complicit in the injustice he perpetrated.

Protestors want accountability for investigators whose inexplicable slowness allowed Van Dyke to remain on desk detail and to collect a paycheck from taxpayers. And the civic derelictions of duty run even deeper. They implicate Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city council, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, rank-and-file cops, Pat Camden, who speaks for Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, and members of the press who credulously report police-union talking points.

All played a part in a corrupt status quo. Until it is reformed, more Chicagoans will die needlessly at the hands of police. The failures are especially inexcusable in the aftermath of both a relatively recent police torture scandal and an off-the-books holding facility scandal where rights to an attorney were willfully denied. Each scandal illustrated the importance of sunlight in the Chicago police department.

City leaders kept blocking it anyway.

A Failure to Punish Misbehaving Cops

The New York Times unearthed a stunning anecdote last week about one Chicago cop’s record:

In 18 years with the Chicago Police Department, the nation’s second-largest, Jerome Finnigan had never been disciplined — although 68 citizen complaints had been lodged against him, including accusations that he used excessive force and regularly conducted illegal searches.

Then, in 2011, he admitted to robbing criminal suspects while serving in an elite police unit and ordering a hit on a fellow police officer he thought intended to turn him in. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. “My bosses knew what I was doing out there, and it went on and on,” he said in court when he pleaded guilty. “And this wasn’t the exception to the rule. This was the rule.”

The newspaper then zoomed out, citing data on officer complaints liberated by several non-profit groups that had to fight for a decade to get it released. The full context is more stunning:

...the data for 2015 shows that in more than 99 percent of the thousands of misconduct complaints against Chicago police officers, there has been no discipline. From 2011 to 2015, 97 percent of more than 28,500 citizen complaints resulted in no officer being punished, according to the files.

Although very few officers were disciplined in the years covered by the data, African-American officers were punished at twice the rate of their white colleagues for the same offenses, the data shows. And although black civilians filed a majority of the complaints, white civilians were far more likely to have their complaints upheld, according to the records.

In short, Chicago does an atrocious job of identifying and disciplining bad cops. And this failure appears to have directly contributed to the wrongful death of McDonald—Van Dyke had 18 civil complaints filed against him, but had never been disciplined. “The Independent Police Review Authority, the civilian board that handles the most serious cases, doesn't take into account previous complaints against the same officer when investigating a new one,” according to a Tuesday editorial in the Chicago Tribune. “11 officers racked up a combined 253 complaints that resulted in a single five-day suspension. Come on. What does it take to flag a problem cop?”

The answer is actually clear: It takes video evidence that the public can access. But Chicago leaders are loath to turn such information over to a public to whom it is owed.

“As someone who has spent years researching a book on the CPD’s relationship to black Chicago,” Simon Balto, a Ball State University history professor, recently wrote, “I can attest that the police department’s stultifying opacity on officer misconduct cases would be an almost impressive feat of obfuscation, were it not so maddening and socially harmful.”

He expounds on another example of almost unimaginable failure to purge a bad cop:

Once you begin digging through the records of individual officers, patterns of abuse on the part of certain men and women begin to emerge that should stun even the most determined denier of racism and police conduct. Officer Raymond Piwnicki, for instance, who works on the Southwest Side, has had sixty-eight different complaints lodged against him since the early 2000s. In one of only three instances in which institutional review found the charges to be sustained, an off-duty Piwnicki, who is white, was found to have instigated an altercation with a black man and his wife as all of them tried to board an elevator. Piwnicki swung at the man, pushed the woman in the chest, and told the man to “Shut up, you fucking coon, you fucking cluck, I do whatever the fuck I want to a fuckin’ nigger coon.” The following year, sustaining a second charge against Piwnicki for abusing a young man and calling him a nigger, a reporting investigator noted that “P[olice] O[fficer] Piwnicki has clearly exhibited a pattern of using profane and derogatory language in his contact with citizens.”

Over and over again, Piwnicki and other high-volume offenders have been brought before investigators because of citizen complaints of abuse. A year ago, an investigation into CPD “impunity” by Truthout found Piwnicki the highest offender in the department, with fifty-five misconduct complaints in just five years. Yet he received precisely zero disciplinary penalties for that misconduct. (Indeed, the Truthout investigators reported, Piwnicki was “awarded the Superintendent's Award of Valor in 2013, for a shooting in which he is now a defendant in a civil suit that cites his ‘deliberate indifference’ to a fellow officer's deadly force.”) Together, repeat offenders like Piwnicki comprise about 10 percent of the CPD’s personnel, but are responsible for roughly 30 percent of misconduct complaints. What this demonstrates more than anything is that citizen complaints – particularly those of black citizens – have no systematic value in the eyes of the police department.

Active Opposition to Transparency

Two figures instrumental in fighting for sunlight in the Laquan McDonald shooting, Craig Futterman of the University of Chicago Law School and Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute, wrote last December about an alarming pattern in Chicago:

A black man is shot by a Chicago police officer. Police sources at the scene say the shooting was justified. The Independent Police Review Authority says it is investigating the incident. Then silence. After a year or two, IPRA issues a report confirming that the shooting was indeed justified. This is in sharp contrast to how the CPD handles high-profile cases of incidents of violence involving civilians. In such cases, the department recognizes and accommodates the public's interest in timely information. Surely, the public interest is at least as strong, if not stronger, when citizens are shot by the police.

They went on to explain that “in Kalven v. Chicago, the Illinois Appellate Court held that documents bearing on allegations of police abuse are public information,” and that the Emanuel administration adopted a new transparency policy as a result—but that the Kalven decision “is limited to closed police misconduct cases; it doesn’t cover ongoing investigations,” even though public interest in police-killing investigations “is far more intense at the time of the shooting than one or two years later when the case is closed and public attention has turned elsewhere.”

​It is shameful that it took a court ruling to prompt Emanuel to be honest with the public about closed cases and doubly shameful that it took another lawsuit to force this week’s release. How much better would Chicago’s police department be if the resources spent fighting to hide bad behavior had been spent on making it less frequent?

As for other elected officials, “the City Council approved a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family, whose attorneys had obtained the video,” the Chicago Reporter notes. “They said it showed McDonald walking away from police at the time of the shooting, contradicting the police story that he was threatening or had ‘lunged at’ cops. The settlement included a provision keeping the video confidential.”

This is typical municipal behavior, but that doesn’t make it right. If a city is going to spend $5 million in taxpayer money to compensate someone for an employee’s misconduct, the public has a right to see the evidence in question, both to judge whether such a staggering sum is justified and to be aware of whatever went so very wrong.

Cops Covering for Other Cops

It would be more difficult for Chicago police officers to get away with misbehavior if not for two enabling forces: the loyalty of fellow cops and backup from a powerful police union. Both factors appear to have played a role in the McDonald case.

  • There is circumstantial evidence that Chicago police officers erased surveillance footage captured at a Burger King restaurant located near the shooting.
  • Though multiple officers were on the scene when Van Dyke committed a homicide that looks like a murder to most everyone who views the footage, none of them has spoken out publicly to criticize their colleague. And Van Dyke evidently felt comfortable shooting as he did despite being surrounded by other cops.
  • A Chicago police-union spokesman, Pat Camden, misled the public about what happened on the night of the shooting, as a comparison of his statement with other witnesses and the just-released dash-cam footage demonstrates.

Credulous Media Reports

Despite the fact that police union officials regularly defend cops regardless of whether they are at fault or not, media outlets frequently let them shape early coverage of police killings. In Chicago, Pat Camden has outsized media influence.

Zorn explains:

In breaking story after breaking story across all media platforms in the last several years, Pat Camden has served as the primary explainer of why the officer had to shoot. Employees of the Chicago Police Department's Office of News Affairs, the customary and preferred conduit for exculpatory accounts, are quoted far less often in these breaking stories even though they, too, are on the scene. Why? Because Camden, the union guy, is talkative and forthcoming in the hours when authorities are still polishing their formal statements and running them through channels.

Camden said that in 2011, those then leading Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police lodge contracted with him to fill those temporary info-vacuums with the officers' side of the story. Until that time, the FOP's president served as its spokesman and was seldom if ever quoted in breaking stories.

But now, whenever a Chicago police officer seriously wounds or kills someone in the line of duty, Camden rushes to the scene—he lives in Will County—and consults with the union representative who has spoken directly to the officer who fired his gun. He then relays this thirdhand account of the incident to the reporters itching to file their stories. And yes, sure, per Camden, every shooting is justified—he and I have tangled on this issue, most memorably in 2000 when he was on the city payroll and I wrote a column challenging the killing of a belligerent homeless man who menaced an officer, though the man was armed with nothing but a table fork. But in fairness to Camden and to the reporters and news outlets who cite him, his versions of events are almost always identical in key respects to the versions later released by the department. So why quote a union mouthpiece on the details of something as fraught as a police shooting? The answer seems to be, why not?

The practice of quoting this man as the most definitive voice in stories on police shootings was always dubious. Now, every news outlet in Chicago is on notice: He led them egregiously astray on one of the highest profile killings in recent memory. Surely the local press won’t continue behaving as if his credibility is undiminished?

Future stories will tell.

The Next Steps

In complementary quotes to The Chicago Reporter, Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute and Craig Futterman of the University of Chicago Law School sum things up aptly. “The real issue here is, this terrible thing happened, how did our governmental institutions respond?” Kalven said.  “And from everything we’ve learned, compulsively at every level, from the cops on the scene to the highest levels of government, they responded by circling the wagons and by fabricating a narrative that they knew was completely false.” Said Futterman, “This case shows the operation of the code of silence in the Chicago Police Department. From the very start you have officers and detectives conspiring to cover up the story.”

Officer Van Dyke ought to be punished. But if he is alone in held accountable for this unjust killing, it will be a sure sign that many derelictions of duty that led to it persist. The elected officials, bureaucrats, and police union officials who’ve played a roll in abjectly failing to properly discipline and purge bad cops should be apologizing profusely for their role in this needless death, and most likely, many others. And until they implement sweeping reforms, whether by choice or to placate a federal civil-rights probe that is more than warranted, protests should continue.