CHICAGO — A judge has ruled that police must release dashcam video showing the violent death of 17-year-old old Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke last October.
Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled the video must be released on Wednesday, Nov. 25 and denied a motion from the city to appeal the decision, securing the video's release.
The video reportedly shows McDonald carrying a knife on the southwest side of the city on Oct. 20 last year, walking as far as the width of two car lanes away from police before an officer shoots him 16 times.
If the streets explode, it will be hard for even the most skeptical observer to say it is anything but justified: McDonald never posed a serious threat to officers. Despite his erratic actions that included puncturing a squad car’s tire while high on PCP, the teen was clearly walking away as the fatal shots were fired.
That night, a Fraternal Order of Police spokesman told reporters what had happened in the eyes of the officers he represents in the union.
McDonald threatened the officers, said Pat Camden, the FOP rep. The officers were in fear for their lives, this former spokesman for the Chicago Police Department asserted. Jason Van Dyke, the officer identified as the killer by the Chicago Tribune, “discharged his weapon, striking the offender.”
Such is the language of all police shootings—until an autopsy occurs, or an eyewitness comes forward, or video evidence contradicts an officer’s statement.
“The story has 24 hours and it’s basically told by the police union, and the police union’s role is to defend its members,” says Jamie Kalven, a Chicago journalist who runs the Invisible Institute, a police-accountability nonprofit.
In a July interview with The Daily Beast, Kalven stressed the importance of independent autopsies—especially in cases like McDonald’s.
“What you do have with the autopsy, though, is one wholly independent piece of evidence.”
McDonald’s autopsy is a brutal document to read. I breezed through it in a conference room at the Cook County President’s Office in May, along with the 18 other autopsies detailing the deaths of those who died at the hands of the Chicago Police Department last year. Going through them, making sure they were all there, it can be easy to forget that these were once lives and not simply stacks of paper bundled four inches high.
McDonald’s autopsy tells us the following: One of Van Dyke’s bullets grazed McDonald’s head, causing a groove in his skull one-quarter of an inch deep, one and three-quarters of an inch long.
A 9 millimeter bullet from Van Dyke’s service weapon was recovered from McDonald’s neck.
A bullet entered McDonald’s left upper chest and came out that same shoulder.
Another entered the right side of his chest, and a “markedly-deformed, copper-jacketed bullet” was recovered from McDonald’s torso, according to the autopsy report.
Another bullet lodged in McDonald’s left elbow. Five. One in the right upper arm. Six. One in the left forearm. Seven. Upper right leg. Eight. Left upper back. Nine. Another bullet in the left elbow and one more in the right upper arm. Ten and 11. Two more in the right arm. Twelve and 13. One in the right hand. Fourteen.
Gunshot wounds in the right lower back and right upper leg round out the report.
“They were completely locked down on that story,” Kalven said of police and public officials in the immediate aftermath of McDonald’s death.
And for good reason: Officer Jason Van Dyke had fired 16 shots into a 17-year-old boy—prompting the extended silence in the year and 30 days since the killing. If the accounts of those who have viewed the video—including at least one witness who says 13 shots were fired after McDonald was down—the disturbing and shocking footage may cause parts of Chicago to burn with the fires of rage that consumed Ferguson and Baltimore.
“If it is released, I don’t believe there will be any riot as the mayor fears,” said former Chicago police commander and Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) whistleblower Lorenzo Davis. “But I do believe it will prompt another increase in calls for police accountability.”
Since McDonald’s death, activists and some journalists and columnists in Chicago have called for the video to be released. Throughout that time, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and officials both in city government and within the Chicago Police Department have said the footage should remain sealed from public view. As part of a $5 million settlement between the city and the McDonald family, a judge barred attorneys from releasing the video.
Another of the McDonald family attorneys, Jeffrey Neslund, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the jarring footage will prompt chaos—and, possibly, riots.
“I met with [McDonald’s mother] and Laquan’s uncle,” Neslund said in April, “and he was really concerned. He didn’t want to see their neighborhood burned.”
Today’s decision comes as a result of a lawsuit filed by Chicago journalist Brandon Smith, who filed a FOIA request in May in an attempt to force the video’s release.
When Chicago police denied the request, Smith filed suit.
“The city hasn’t submitted evidence that releasing the video would harm any investigation,” Smith told The Daily Beast on Monday. “It has basically ceded that point in our case.”
While that may be Smith’s contention, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others have cited an ongoing federal investigation as reason why the footage shouldn’t be released, saying, “There’s an appropriate way to handle when videos become public, and that procedure will be followed.”
From the beginning, Chicago police have sought to conceal information about McDonald’s death—in at least one case by apparently violating not only IPRA procedures but the Constitution when they seized security footage from a nearby restaurant without a warrant.
Eventually, McDonald family attorneys learned that police had wiped 86 minutes of footage from that tape, which doesn’t include the shooting but does show the events that led up to the fatal confrontation.
When a reporter started poking around about the missing footage, a manager at the restaurant said he didn’t realize some of the footage was going to be deleted. When pressed, IPRA released a statement:
“We have no credible evidence at this time that would cause us to believe CPD purged or erased any surveillance video,” the agency told NBC Chicago.
Davis, the former police commander and one of only two black supervisors at IPRA, countered that statement with statements made to him by IPRA employees at the time.
“There was at least a couple of investigators at IPRA who did feel like a portion of [the security footage] was erased,” he told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
Larry Merritt, spokesman for IPRA, would not comment on the 86 minutes of video that McDonald family attorneys allege was deleted.
“All I can say right now is that the status of the case is that it is still pending,” he said Tuesday.
In addition to the reportedly missing footage, audio from the dashcam footage depicting McDonald’s death is also absent, according to the family’s attorneys. The missing audio has served to cause only more speculation into the Chicago Police Department’s actions following McDonald’s death.
Laquan McDonald was one of 19 men killed by Chicago police in 2014, according to media reports and police data compiled from open records requests filed by The Daily Beast in the past year and a half.
The 17-year-old boy’s death was by far the most egregious use of lethal force by Chicago police, a Daily Beast review found from autopsy reports, investigative findings from the Independent Police Review Authority, and statements from law enforcement regarding all 19 police-involved killings.
The McDonald story begins on Oct. 20 when police were called to an industrial area in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. There, the teen was reported by police to have been behaving erratically. Officers requested back up because they weren’t equipped with the Tasers they should have used to take McDonald down and arrest him.
McDonald was put down without the Tasers, anyway.
Van Dyke and four officers followed McDonald in their squad cars as he wandered, high on the PCP that was later found in an autopsy, waving a four-inch blade. The teen eventually teetered into the street from the side, prompting the need for officers to react, the police union spokesman Camden said. Van Dyke and other officers reportedly ordered McDonald to drop the knife.
When he didn’t comply, Van Dyke and his fellow officers tried to box McDonald in with their squad cars. McDonald responded by puncturing a tire.
What came next depends on who you believe, which is why so many have called for the release of the video that may answer the questions that have persisted since Oct. 20:
Why didn’t police wait for the Tasers to arrive?
Why did they shoot him so many times?
Why did Laquan McDonald have to die?
If the video is released—which remains up in the air because police are likely to appeal the judge’s decision—Chicago and the world may get a disturbing answer to those questions.
Michael Robbins, an attorney for the McDonald family, told the Chicago Tribune in April that the altercation “starts out as an unjustified shooting, and it turns into some kind of sadistic execution.”
A federal investigation into McDonald’s death was announced in April by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois, and includes IPRA, the FBI, and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
If a federal indictment is issued—which some in legal and law enforcement circles see as an inevitability—Van Dyke would be the defendant. With none of the other officers on the scene of McDonald’s death firing their weapons, Van Dyke is the lone killer. He is solely responsible for firing 16 bullets into the teen’s body as it reportedly bounced off the pavement, according to some who have viewed the troubling footage.
“I have not seen the video,” said Davis, the veteran cop, IPRA whistleblower, and police-accountability advocate. “But I’ve talked to people who have seen it, and they were horrified by what they saw.
“Grown men were brought to tears.”