Chicagoans put their police on notice by convicting officer of murder for on-duty actions

I fought Chicago city government in court in 2015 to release the video of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being killed by a police officer. After a judge ordered the video released in my case, 405 days after the killing, prosecutors charged the officer, Jason Van Dyke, with murder. A jury convicted Van Dyke October 5.

It’s a strong message, the conviction of Jason Van Dyke. In at least 50 years, no Chicago police officer has been charged with murdering a citizen while on duty—let alone convicted. Judging by this verdict, if more police were charged, more would be convicted. At least a hundred killings a decade by Chicago police have gone without punishment. Without justice, some would say. How can we slow or stop it? I’ve outlined that below.

Laquan had a hard life. He was high the night he was murdered, and walking around, sometimes holding his knife and sometimes with it pocketed. (Talk to people from Laquan’s neighborhood and you’ll learn: guns are for violence. Knives are for protection.) He may have been out to steal a car radio, although he never got ahold of one.

None of this should have meant a death sentence, according to members of the jury that convicted Van Dyke. They found the former officer guilty on one count of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery.

“Black boys needed that,” said a member of Laquan’s community, outside the courtroom after the verdict was read. “Black girls needed that.”

That night, Laquan had run away from police for a few minutes before he was surrounded by five police cars, totaling ten officers. When it was clear he wasn’t getting away, he slowed his walk and held his knife. Van Dyke had been following Laquan in a police car, but roughly six seconds after he jumped out, he opened fire, hitting the teen with all 16 bullets in his gun.

Since videos of the incident didn’t come with sound, the prosecution called an FBI expert to identify visual markers to determine how long Van Dyke was shooting. The FBI found “a minimum of” 14.2 seconds. Then they played a video, with sound, of a marksman shooting 16 shots into a target over exactly 14.2 seconds.

The painfully slow sound was devastating—horrifying—to those of us trying to understand how Laquan met his end. Maybe even more than the actual video.

A prosecutor asked the FBI expert: “How would you characterize the rate of fire?”

“It’s a deliberate rate of fire,” the expert said. “It’s methodical. He was taking time to aim each shot.” The prosecutor let that linger in the dead air of the courtroom. You could hear a pin drop.

In years past, several citizens had filed complaints alleging Van Dyke had used racial slurs in their interactions with them. The judge did not allow this to be presented to the jury in his trial.

One in three Americans killed by people they don’t know are killed by police, according to a study published in Granta magazine. The American Journal of Public Health declared that between 2012 and 2018, 8% of adult male homicide victims are killed by police.

Maybe after this verdict, more American juries will stop accepting an otherwise baseless “I feared for my life” by accused officers. And yet, darker-skinned people are still perceived as more scary than the lighter-skinned. If that doesn’t change, the excuse will still work, considering police tend to shoot people of color. Caucasians make up five percent of people police shoot in Chicago, a city that’s 32 percent caucasian.

The video prompted firings of a slew of officials and a slate of reforms is set to be approved by a judge. (Donald Trump’s attorney general says he opposes the reforms.) Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the day before Van Dyke’s trial that he would not seek re-election. Emanuel had raised millions for his campaign and fielded ballot petitioners.

Every story about Rahm’s political prospects since the video’s release had mentioned the name “Laquan McDonald.”

And yet—replacing brass doesn’t replace a system. Police originally lied to the public, saying a single shot killed Laquan. The city and police opposed the video’s release. Offices that sought to hide how the boy died remain. Each worker in them can cite “that’s just how things work” or “I’m just doing my job”—instead of considering oneself, where responsibility lies.

Two witnesses to Laquan’s murder were arrested that night, taken to “central holding,” kept overnight, and intimidated. They were told over and over, according to a lawsuit one of them filed against the city, that “you didn’t see what you think you saw.” Several other witnesses have said they were “shooed away” and that police didn’t take their information.

If Chicago wants to stop police from killing so indiscriminately, Chicagoans need to dismantle officers’ ability to exonerate themselves and hide their colleagues’ misdeeds. When I filed my lawsuit for the video, with an attorney who only got paid by the state when he won, I was washing dishes in a restaurant.

Several, but not yet all, officers involved with protecting Van Dyke face charges in connection.

To police: if the public sees you purging repeat offenders from your ranks, Chicagoans might start to trust you again. And don’t let the Fraternal Order of Police convince you that transparency or accountability causes violence. This has been probed extensively and found untenable. Well-proven solutions haven’t been implemented at scale.

If only Laquan knew that night, as he breathed his last breaths, that his name would galvanize a mindset for an entire city. If only he were here to see it. To file a FOIA request. To march, with his schoolmates, for a better world.

Advertisements

Set up a tiny monthly contribution to join in my stories and learn the craft

locking-arms-rnd-2-10

Police watch protesters on the University of Chicago campus. Photo by Sydney Combs. (sydneycombs.com)

I set up a “Patreon” page this week. I’m telling my family, friends, and supporters around the country to check it out. I hope you do, too. It allows you to set up a small recurring monthly contribution to my work. Every dollar lets me do that much less work on odd jobs, and thus that much more journalism.

But!

I don’t just offer the warm fuzzies of a donation. Rather I offer a legit product. A product which, if you’re into holding powerful people accountable, you might be excited about. Treat it like a super-cheap education.

The rewards build, BTW, so whatever level you choose, you get all the smaller levels too.

$1: “Office hours” (chat room) access and emailed links when I release pieces or episodes of my forthcoming YouTube series.
$2: Bumped sticker or bike bag button that says “I read journalists who care about all people”
$3: Opportunity to join my book club, “Need-to-know: A woke book club”
$4: Invites to my twice-a-year journalism-wonk parties
$6: First dibs on helping me with stories if you’ve been vetted to do so, and my help in crafting, filing, and responding to two FOIA requests a year
$10: Up to two hours with you in a teach & learn session. I recommend an encryption tools tutorial but the sky’s the limit!

Higher levels give you access to my stories shortly before they’re available to the general public, or access to my story notes once they’re published. If you’re into it, take a look.

WVON commentary

I recorded a commentary for WVON this week. It airs three times today, and maybe over the weekend, too.

Here’s the text, if you want to read instead:

This is Brandon Smith. I’m that journalist that sued the city to make ‘em release video of Laquan McDonald being shot, working with your brother Will Calloway. I’m here with something that’s half PSA, half open letter to the DOJ. See, the Department of justice has a dozen investigators in Chicago now, plus their support staff. They say it’s the biggest civil rights probe they’ve ever done on a police department. Now, let’s get this out of the way: as a journalist, I deal in facts. But as a human, I have to advocate against oppression when I see it. And there are still a bunch of cowboys in the Chicago Police Department—not all, but many—who still think people in some neighborhoods are, quote, “bad guys” and people in other ones are generally good. Ta-Nehisi Coates said this, he said: “racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. Is is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” But I probably don’t need to tell you that; I’m hoping you share this piece with your friends who don’t understand. Lotta people out there still think the city did what it was supposed to do with that video of Laquan. What I say to that is, the DOJ being here means there’s a lot that’s not right. I think the mayor and the new superintendent are hiding behind this notion that there are *all these different ideas* about how to make sure police don’t kill people when they shouldn’t. There’s a lot to fix, but don’t believe for a second that it’s too complicated. After speaking with hundreds of people since the Laquan video came out—including a lot of black activists that talk to a lot more people—I’ve made a list of some of the most pressing problems. These are what the D-O-J needs to investigate, and include in their eventual set of rules for what police can’t do anymore.

– civil forfeiture
– shooting people in the back as they run away
– not booking people immediately when they arrest them, like they do at Homan Square
– roughing people up and other, quote, “harsh interrogation.”
– trading guns for freedom—particularly guns you have to buy or spend a lot of time getting
– police having to sign their name to every time they call out an awful co-worker
– police not being charged with perjury when they probably should be
– requiring sworn affidavits from citizens who file complaints against officers
– cops destroying dashboard camera audio devices

Now, I’ll publicize the DOJ’s responses if I get them. And if you want to spread word about this piece, I’ve tweeted it out. Twitter.com/muckrakery. It’ll throw you over to the site of the people at WVON. Until next time: Peace.

Calloway calls for fired IPRA whistleblower to lead that agency

DSC_2604
William Calloway meets with Lorenzo Davis to talk about police discipline–and lack thereof–in late January 2016. Photo by Brandon Smith.
Editor’s note: the following is a lightly-edited press release given to me by William Calloway, who worked with me on the FOIA that resulted in the Laquan McDonald video. Calloway and others are advocating for Lorenzo Davis to head the Independent Police Review Authority.

Community Activists, Leaders, Supporters Demand Immediate Appointment of Former Investigator Lorenzo Davis to Head IPRA

Following the release of the Laquan McDonald & Cedrick Chatman videos, the public distrust when it comes to African-Americans and police relations is at an all time high. Activists believe this is in large part because of little-to-no disciplinary action taken against officers for misconduct. “The Independent Police Review Authority,” responsible for police misconduct investigations,”has let the community down,” says community activist William Calloway. Since its establishment in 2008, there has been over 409 police shootings with only 2 of them being founded “unjustified.”
Lorenzo Davis, a former IPRA investigator, was fired last summer by then-IPRA Chief Administrator Scott Ando, for not changing his investigative findings in the fatal officer-involved-shooting of Cedrick Chatman. After watching the Chatman video when it was released, community members and activists agree the shooting was NOT justified and have questioned why Davis was fired. Activists believe there should be community selection of IPRA’s chief, and that any mayoral appointment will be compromised.
Calloway, who was partly responsible for the release of the McDonald video, and protested for the release of Cedrick Chatman video, has spoken directly to former IPRA investigator Lorenzo Davis. Davis has said he will take into strong consideration being appointed as IPRA Chief Administration once the offer is proposed.

A newly assembled organization called the Community Accountability Council has started to work toward holding elected officials accountable for the acts of political, social, & economic injustices that are plaguing the African American Community. As its first specific demand, it calls for black elected officials to voice their support for appointing Lorenzo Davis as head of IPRA.

——-                                      ———
 
MONDAY FEBRUARY 8, 2016 @ 6PM STARTING ON THE CORNER OF 87TH & COTTAGE GROVE activist, protesters, and supporters will march onto the office of 8th ward Alderman Michelle Harris, demanding her public support for the appointment of Lorenzo Davis, and protest to hold her accountable for her 100% voting record with the mayor. This will be the beginning of an initiative that will be seen over the next weeks to call for the Black Caucus to support the appointment of Lorenzo Davis as Chief of IPRA.
In the news
 
 
Contact
 
William Calloway (773)-301-4682

The video out, the officer charged, the problem persists

Screenshot - 11282015 - 12:02:29 PM

A press conference to discuss what we are working toward with the release of the Laquan McDonald video. Me at left, William Calloway at the podium, and Dorothy Holmes, right, mother of Ronald Johnson, who was killed by police a week before Laquan McDonald. Thanks to ABC7 for the screengrab.

A lot has happened in the past week, including my column in the Guardian; a New York Times article about me being barred from the press conference my lawsuit precipitated; and a Columbia Journalism Review article about my as-yet non-tethered nature in the news industry.

But here’s the latest.

My lawyer and I are demanding that all documents related to Laquan’s case are immediately posted to the internet. (We’re using #LaquanOnline.) That’s the only way to show the public what they need to know in this rather obvious cover-up. (Kudos to the Washington Post editorial board for not mincing words!) Making everything public is the only way the city will “heal,” as Rahm often likes to say.

We’ve filed a FOIA for everything involved in the case, but we are very interested in the first half of one particular video, if it exists; the video from one particular police car, if it exists; and the mysteriously missing audio from all the tapes. Also, crucially, any statements taken from any officers on scene; and the names of all the officers on scene that day.

But it’s not an isolated incident, as most of us know, and this case finally brought that idea into the sails of major media. In the article linked above, the Washington Post editorial board called for the heads of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. And the Post wasn’t easy on Rahm, either. Said the cover-up likely stretches all the way to him. Ben Joravsky also had an insightful column about Rahm’s position in all this.

In my view, Rahm needs to discuss the data behind police shootings. There’s one per week on average since at least 1986, according to the Reader’s Steve Bogira and copious data. (There are no signs of it slowing, as McCarthy has bewilderingly stated.) And Rahm needs to discuss the concrete steps he’s taking to make sure the shootings slow to a near halt. Not vague references to “culture.”

A good start would be to tear down and rebuild the so-called “Independent Police Review Authority,” tasked with investigating police misconduct. They have historically found virtually no officer at fault. Even a whistleblower has come out and shown (with emails!) that he was asked to falsify his investigations of police misconduct, and he was fired when he tried to push back internally.

We won. Epically. Now we wait.

press conference crowd

Attorney Matt Topic, myself, and activist William Calloway answer questions from reporters at the Daley Center courthouse Nov. 19 after winning our lawsuit against the city. (Obscured is the other attorney on the case, Craig Futterman.) We sought the release of a video that allegedly shows police shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times on a Chicago street last year. Our suit accused the Chicago Police Department of using certain exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act without merit in withholding the video. Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ordered the city to release the footage by Nov. 25.

As this story is ongoing, please see my Twitter feed, @muckrakery, for the latest updates.

Speaking of Twitter, I’ll re-post here a few key items I’ve posted there since the ruling.

9-22:

This weekend, Rahm Emanuel reached out to leaders in Chicago’s black community to try to get black activists to meet with him.

Some black activists undoubtedly will meet with Rahm; others say (via Facebook) that they will not. I don’t blame them.

One black activist says she’s insulted at the invitation, b/c she and others couldn’t previously get a meeting to discuss police brutality.

(I also re-tweeted a link to this well-researched article, “The Laquan McDonald video will not cause violent protests”)

9-20

“The conversation” that the video adds to? It’s the one underpinned by the work has done and continues.

(Responding to some rumors that some news organizations already have the video, either leaked or on embargo) Let’s put it this way: the city has to tell me when they release the video, because I’m the #$&@ plaintiff. I’ll let you know when I know.

It’s our responsibility as journalists to describe what’s really happening. Unvarnished. That’s not “objectivity” (a myth). Nearly opposite.

Perfunctory language, clinical language—like in statements issued by police—ends up obscuring reality. Videos set the record straight.

When policing is done in communities of color, it’s done much differently than in white communities. The data supports this unequivocally.

It’s easy for people in responsibly-policed communities to think “that happens over there.” To not advocate for reform. Folks need a shake.

These are our police. This is our government. We give them their power. And thus, they are ALL of our responsibility.