Laquan McDonald was one of 19 men killed by the Chicago Police Department last year. As national media turns its attention to the city following the release of video showing McDonald being killed in what prosecutors say was an act of first-degree murder by Officer Jason Van Dyke, the 18 other homicides will go uncovered.
For the past year The Daily Beast has been investigating killings by Chicago police to determine whether the police and press versions of events line up with autopsy reports; whether the Independent Police Review Authority has completed its investigations into the deaths; whether witnesses have spoken to police and IPRA investigators. Simply put: We want to know if there are more Laquan McDonalds.
CHICAGO — On July 5, 2014, not far from the intersection of 87th and Morgan on Chicago’s South Side, Warren Robinson hid under a car. Maybe he was uncooperative, as police have said. Maybe he was defiant, or aggressive, or pissed off or any number of emotions that can course through the mind of a 16-year-old boy. Or maybe he was just scared, because the police were about to pump 17 bullets into his 5-foot-9, 135-pound frame.
Whatever the case, police say they recovered a .38-caliber semi-automatic pistol from Robinson. The cops there had guns too, and they used them to shoot Robinson as he climbed out from underneath the car, apparently refusing to drop his piece.
Robinson is the only person shot by Chicago police more times than McDonald was last year. In all, it took 109 Chicago police bullets to kill McDonald, Robinson, and the other 17 men, a Daily Beast review of autopsy reports found.
Most of those killings were not as egregious as McDonald’s, but many exist in a state of evidentiary purgatory: Whether they are justified or not is nearly impossible to tell because we were not there. For activists like Black Lives Matter, virtually all were wrong and unnecessary. For police, virtually all were right and required to uphold law and order.
The truth lies somewhere in between.
In order to determine whether or not officers were justified in those killings, The Daily Beast compared police versions of events as reported by the press to autopsy reports provided through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, as well as interviews with eyewitnesses and residents of neighborhoods where the shootings took place.
In nine of 17 killings, police appeared to have been justified in their use of lethal force, namely because the decedent was armed with a gun or knife.
In six killings, it is difficult or outright impossible to determine if police were justified in using lethal force. This is thanks to still-pending Independent Police Review Authority investigations and contradictory versions of events from eyewitnesses. In at least one case, the family of a man killed by Chicago police has sued the department and the city over their loved one’s death.
Lorenzo Davis, a 23-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department who went on to work for the IPRA before he was fired, has said at least three fatal shootings by police he investigated were covered up by officials. Davis told The Daily Beast last week that the investigations into those shootings have not been finalized, but when they are, he is ready to talk.
Warren Robinson’s death warranted more coverage in local media, but considering the mayhem that enveloped the city’s South and West sides that weekend—82 shot and 14 killed—the incident got a bit lost. Afterall, Robinson was the second of two teens killed by police over the holiday weekend—Pedro Rios, 14, died when he allegedly refused to drop what was described by Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden as a “Dirty Harry” gun. (Camden said Laquan McDonald “lunged” at officers, which was proven false by dashcam video.) Rios’s death appears to have been justified—as unsettling as it may be—but a number of factors may require another look at Robinson’s death.
First, there is the autopsy report, which provides in precise medical detail exactly how those 17 Chicago police bullets entered Robinson’s body. The autopsy begins the same way as Laquan McDonald’s and many others do:
“The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished black male…”
Sometimes there is unique identifying information, like the tattoo on Robinson’s chest that read “God’s Child.” Oftentimes, there are quite a few bullet holes.
Robinson had 17 bullet holes. Starting with a graze wound on top of the head, police worked their way down Robinson’s body with their shots, all of which traveled from back to front:
9.5 inches below the top of the head, 10 inches below, 10.5, and 11.5 inches below. The next gunshot wounds are presented 14, 15.5, 19, 20, 20.5, 21.5, and 23 inches below the top of his head.
That was just his back.
In Robinson’s right arm, with all bullets but one traveling back to front, the teen was struck thrice in his forearm, twice in his right shoulder, and once in the back of his hand.
“He was told multiple times—he was told ‘Drop the gun, drop the gun.’ He is coming out from under the car with the gun in hand. At that point he [is] shot,” cop union spokesman Camden said at the time. “He is told again after he is shot to drop the gun and he refuses to do so, still has his finger on the trigger. The officers again defend themselves.”
Especially after Laquan McDonald, there is no reason to believe anything Camden says. Period.
It is Camden’s job to support the officers he represents in the police union. In virtually every story about someone being shot or killed by the police, Camden gives the official but preliminary version of events. He performed this same task in his previous occupation as spokesman for the Chicago Police Department.
“It gives them deniability,” said Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute. It was Kalven who broke the McDonald story when sources told him to look into the teen’s death. His initial story and the lawsuit later filed by independent journalist Brandon Smith helped bring what is now being called a murder to light.
Camden’s remarks weren’t the only ones available about Robinson’s death though. At a July 7 press conference, Superintendent Garry McCarthy also described each of the five police shootings from that weekend to reporters.
Police had “a very specific description of the offender,” McCarthy said of Robinson. The teen was alleged to have been firing shots or carrying a handgun, depending on which version of events—McCarthy’s or Camden’s—you choose.
“We have four civilian witnesses in this case, one of which was the 911 caller who actually took a picture of [Robinson] standing on the corner with these firearms, and sent it to us after this event happened,” McCarthy said. “This young man was pursued for quite some time. He eventually hid underneath a vehicle, pointing the weapon at officers on numerous occasions, was shot by the officers and subsequently expired.”
Robinson fit the description of “someone who had been firing shots in the area,” Camden and unnamed police sources had reported to the media. Robinson “tried to blend in at a party [...] but left and jumped a fence when people at the party started to complain,” those officials added to the official version of events preceding Robinson’s death.
So which was it then? Robinson was brandishing a gun or firing it? There was no mention of shots fired in McCarthy’s July 7 description of Robinson’s demise, and no mention of a party. The only real consistency between McCarthy and Camden’s versions of events is that Robinson died at the end, and that police recovered a handgun.
More than a year later, the IPRA investigation into Robinson’s death has not been completed. Questions about where police traced the gun to and other details about the killing remain unknown because the Chicago Police Department denied my FOIA request for reports associated with incident on the grounds that Robinson was a minor.
While it’s true that reports involving minors are typically exempt from FOIA requests, Illinois law makes no such distinction when it comes to the dead.
“When the victim of a crime is deceased, the personal privacy interest of the victim in the disclosure of his or her identity ceases to exist,” Illinois statute states.
Among the 2014 Chicago police killings that appear to be justified is the death of Joe Huff, an 86-year-old black man who allegedly threatened his neighbor, an off-duty cop, and fired at the officer with a shotgun, according to media reports. The officer fired back, killing Huff and wounding his 90-year-old wife. The altercation was the result of a long-running dispute between Huff and the officer, and the IPRA determined the shooting was justified.
Comparisons of autopsy reports and news stories for Huff, Robinson, McDonald, and the 16 others killed last year by Chicago police, show just how complex IPRA—and in the case of McDonald federal and county—investigations can be. As with any murder, shooting and crimes both violent and petty in nature, witnesses clam up, disappear, or refuse to cooperate. In one case, the mother of a man killed by police never picked up the phone when IPRA investigators repeatedly tried to contact her.
In others, witnesses’ initial testimony was contradicted by changing statements. There is one general rule of thumb, though, when it comes to IPRA investigations: The more controversial the killing, the longer the agency takes. That’s why the results of investigations into the deaths of Robinson and McDonald have yet to be released.
That also may be why the agency has yet to release its findings on the killing of Terrence Gilbert.
The last man who died at the hands of the Chicago Police Department in 2014, Gilbert passed away on Christmas night. Gilbert, 25, was allegedly suicidal and manic when he lunged multiple times at officers with a knife, like McDonald allegedly did, striking one in a bulletproof vest.
At the time of his death, unnamed police sources said Gilbert was shot twice in the torso. Gilbert’s autopsy report, like McDonald’s, tells a different story.
Terrence Gilbert was only shot once in the torso, according to his autopsy report from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. The other two gunshot wounds he suffered were to the right wrist and, most devastatingly, to the front of his skull.
That bullet pierced the left frontal lobe of Gilbert’s brain before disintegrating; shrapnel was recovered from the right side of his neck.
The police department denied an FOIA request asking for report numbers associated with Gilbert. In its denial, the department cited language in the act that “does not require a public body to interpret or advise requesters as to the meaning or significance of public records.”
But no such “meaning or significance” was requested. The Daily Beast simply requested the numbers of reports that contained Gilbert’s name in order to ensure that none were missing if and when Chicago police provided documents related to him.
No such documents were ever provided.
For months following the Aug. 20 death of his son, Desean, last year, Reggie Pittman had a simple and morbid question: “How many times did they shoot him?”
It wasn’t until this May that I was able to answer that question for Reggie. He lives in Indiana and without the means to get to Chicago and pay the $50 required for a copy of his son’s autopsy report. I obtained it for him through an FOIA request, then called him and laid out each of Desean’s 10 gunshot wounds.
While Desean’s killing by police was almost surely legally justified (he was standing over Amelio Johnson, who police say Desean had just shot with the gun allegedly his hand), that doesn’t take away the pain Reggie continues to feel.
Not a week goes by that the father doesn’t post some memory of his 20-year-old son on Facebook. The gunshot wounds in Desean’s body leave a lifetime wound in Reggie’s heart.
“Your birthday was the worst day for me,” Reggie wrote on Oct. 30. “I cried all day, didn’t want to talk to anyone, contemplated suicide, and even blamed myself for your death. But a few days later you came to me in my dream telling me the only way I can move on is if I allow my heart to heal.”