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.
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?