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Did Chicago police cover up the Laquan McDonald shooting? A judge is about to decide.

The conspiracy trial challenging the Chicago Police Department’s “code of silence,” explained.

Chicago Police officer Thomas Gaffney, center, former Detective David March, left, and ex-Officer Joseph Walsh
Chicago police officer Thomas Gaffney (center), former detective David March, (left), and former officer Joseph Walsh went on trial last month for allegedly covering up the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald.
Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

In 2014, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old. Van Dyke was convicted last year in a case that drew national attention, and now three other officers who have been accused of covering up the shooting will find out if they will face punishment as well.

On January 17, a judge will decide if officer Thomas Gaffney, former officer Joseph Walsh, and former detective David March broke the law when they filed reports supporting Van Dyke’s account of the shooting, and allegedly hampered other investigator’s efforts to uncover the truth. Their trial began in November, and all three have been charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and official misconduct.

The Laquan McDonald shooting rocked Chicago, in part because Van Dyke shot the teenager some 16 times, and later claimed that McDonald “lunged” at him while holding a knife. But this account was not backed up by video of the shooting released a year later. The shooting, coupled with the legal fight to get video released, called national attention to a decades-old divide between the city’s police force and its residents. Outrage over McDonald’s death fueled a damning Justice Department investigation into the Chicago Police Department, a court order aimed at reforming the department, and a wave of political changes in the city.

The officers argue that they did not break any laws when filing their reports, claiming that they are being unfairly portrayed as corrupt when they were simply doing their jobs and using the information available at the time. The prosecution counters that the officers intentionally tried to shield Van Dyke by writing reports that simultaneously exaggerated the threat posed by McDonald and justified Van Dyke’s use of force.

The three officers opted for a bench trial, leaving the final ruling in the hands of Cook County Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson. After a month of delays, Stephenson is expected to finally announce a verdict this week, one day before Van Dyke is sentenced for the shooting.

The conspiracy trial hasn’t received as much national coverage as Van Dyke’s September 2018 trial, but the verdict could have a significant impact on the Chicago police. Experts and activists argue that police reports supporting Van Dyke’s account of the shooting are a key example of the police department’s so-called code of silence, an opaque system in which officers work to shield one another from scrutiny, and allow officer misconduct to go unaddressed.

In Chicago, where police long criticized for various abuses against black residents have been able to operate with impunity, experts say a verdict against the officers could serve as an important step in showing how these sorts of codes — and the larger culture that creates them — must be changed.

Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald. Then officers allegedly worked to cover it up.

In the evening hours of October 20, 2014, Chicago police approached McDonald after receiving reports that someone was breaking into vehicles in a trucking yard. The teen walked away from officers, and police said he used a knife to “pop” the tire of a police cruiser. The officers were waiting for a Taser team and didn’t approach him directly, instead opting to either remain in their vehicles or follow slowly on foot as he moved down the street.

When Van Dyke arrived on the scene after hearing initial dispatches, he opened fire within seconds, completely emptying his service weapon. Van Dyke later claimed that McDonald failed to comply with demands to drop the knife and made a threatening move toward police. Several police reports filed in the days after the shooting — including those written by the officers recently on trial — backed up Van Dyke’s account.

But more than a year later, after a string of lawsuits, protests, and a judge’s order to release dash-cam footage of the shooting, city officials released video footage showing that McDonald appeared to be moving away from police when he was shot. The video also showed that McDonald was roughly 10 feet away from Van Dyke when the shooting happened, and that many of the 16 shots hit McDonald after he fell to the ground. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder in November 2015.

Craig Futterman, a policing expert and professor at the University of Chicago School of Law, said the McDonald case showed “the anatomy of the code of silence in action.”

“You had a scene where officers where doing things largely right,” Futterman said in a December interview. Even so, “everyone falls in line after Jason Van Dyke fires those shots.”

Conspiracy charges weren’t filed until 2017 against three of the officers who backed Van Dyke’s story: Thomas Gaffney, one of the first officers to cross paths with McDonald that night; Joseph Walsh, Van Dyke’s partner who witnessed the McDonald shooting; and David March, a detective tasked with investigating the shooting for the police department.

In last year’s trial, the officers disputed claims that they were part of a larger cover-up, saying that they did not have any desire or reason to protect Van Dyke. But the prosecution noted that their argument can’t explain why their reports agreed so closely with Van Dyke’s version of events.

“What the law required was that [McDonald] be brought to justice,” assistant special prosecutor Ronald Safer said during last year’s trial, “not that he be murdered on the street, and not that these officers cover it up.”

The prosecution pointed to several aspects of the officers’ reports, like Gaffney and Walsh’s reports that McDonald committed an “attack with a weapon” and their accounts of McDonald’s allegedly “swinging knife,” noting that this language tracks closely with Van Dyke’s own account. In his own report about the shooting, March argued that each officer presented accounts consistent with the video and that Van Dyke was justified in firing so many times at McDonald.

Defense attorneys, for their part, argued that their clients were unfairly singled out by prosecutors, and the shooting was McDonald’s fault. It’s the same argument raised in Van Dyke’s own trial, with the former officer arguing that he fired on the teenager after perceiving a threat. That argument was dismissed by the prosecution in the case, and did not sway the jury that convicted Van Dyke in October.

This is just the latest in a spate of cases regarding the Chicago Police Department’s alleged “code of silence”

As Chicago awaits the verdict, the main question now is if a judge will agree with the prosecution’s argument that officers intentionally covered up the shooting and were part of a broader conspiracy aimed at protecting Van Dyke. Some experts are skeptical.

“I don’t know that there’s enough evidence to conclude they were guilty of conspiracy,” Richard Kling, a clinical professor at the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, told Chicago’s WTTW News. “Realistically, the fact that everything looked the same doesn’t necessarily mean people conspired together.”

But others say the case perfectly highlights what activists and experts have referred to as a code of silence in the Chicago Police Department, in which officers avoid scrutinizing their colleagues and deliberately hamper efforts to punish police misconduct. In recent years, a number of police shootings and excessive force cases against black residents in the city have drawn attention to the systemic problem.

In a 2017 Department of Justice report on the Chicago Police Department, federal observers noted that they found evidence of an agreement between officers to hide wrongdoing. “One CPD sergeant told us that, ‘if someone comes forward as a whistleblower in the Department, they are dead on the street,’” the report notes.

According to the DOJ report, this code is so pervasive in Chicago that “officers and community members know” of its existence, further straining an already broken relationship between the police and black Chicagoans regularly subjected to racist language, police violence, and other discriminatory behavior.

The 2018 police conspiracy trial is not the first time that the code of silence has been subjected to legal scrutiny. After a 2007 incident in which an off-duty officer attacked a bartender, Karolina Obrycka, the woman sued the city of Chicago, arguing that the officer’s actions were covered up in an attempt to shield him from consequences. In 2012, a jury sided with Obrycka, awarding her $850,000 in damages. But the city asked that the judge throw out the jury’s ruling that a “code of silence” protected the officer.

Four years later, the city reached a $2 million settlement with Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria, two former Chicago police officers who argued that they faced retaliation and mistreatment from their colleagues after working undercover on police corruption cases. The officers claimed that after being sent to a new unit, they were given a limited number of assignments and were encouraged to leave the department entirely.

“The fact of the matter is that a code of silence exists,” Terry Ekl, a lawyer for Obrycka, told the New York Times in December. “As long as you and I are alive, it’s going to be there. It would take the leadership at the top stating that we’re not going to tolerate this any longer, and if you do this, you’ll be fired.”

In the wake of the McDonald shooting, city officials have at times acknowledged that a system protecting officers exists.

Shortly after video footage of Van Dyke shooting McDonald was released in 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel lamented the code of silence, calling it “the tendency to ignore, it is a tendency to deny, it is a tendency in some cases to cover up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues.” But police officials have not made similar arguments. Police Superintendent Johnson, for example, has said that he isn’t aware of a code affecting officer behavior. Other figures, like police union chief Kevin Graham, have argued that recent prosecutorial arguments about the existence of such a code “defies belief.”

Futterman, the University of Chicago law professor, said that as long as the Chicago Police Department refuses to acknowledge its role in protecting officers, it will come down to the legal system to punish officers who shield their colleagues from accountability. “The Chicago Police Department has shown time and time again that it is incapable and/or unwilling to change on its own,” he said.

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