CHICAGO (AP) – Police officers who watched a colleague shoot a black Chicago teenager 16 times filed reports depicting a very different version of events than what dashcam footage showed, portraying the teen as far more menacing than he appears in the video.
The city released hundreds of pages of documents late Friday pertaining to the October 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Jason Van Dyke, a white police officer. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder late last month, only hours before the department released the video under a court order, sparking protests and accusations of a cover-up.
The video, which police kept from the public for more than a year, shows McDonald veering away from officers on a four-lane street when Van Dyke, seconds after exiting his squad car, opened fire from close range. The officer continued shooting McDonald after he crumpled to the ground and was barely moving.
In the newly-released police reports, however, several officers, including Van Dyke and his partner, described McDonald as aggressively approaching officers while armed with a knife. At least three other officers, including his partner, supported key details in Van Dyke’s version of events.
Van Dyke told an investigator that McDonald was “swinging the knife in an aggressive, exaggerated manner” and that McDonald “raised the knife across the chest” and pointed it at Van Dyke, according to one police report. Multiple officers reported that even after McDonald was down, he kept trying to get up with the knife in his hand.
“In defense of his life, Van Dyke backpedaled and fired his handgun at McDonald, to stop the attack,” one report reads. “McDonald fell to the ground but continued to move and continued to grasp the knife, refusing to let go of it.”
Van Dyke told an investigator that he feared that McDonald would rush him with the knife or launch it at him. He also noted a 2012 Chicago Police Department warning about a weapon that was a knife but was capable of firing a bullet, hence making it firearm, according to the reports. The reports included a copy of the warning issued by an unnamed “Midwest intelligence organization” that had been circulated to officers.
The reports add to mounting questions about the Chicago Police Department’s handling of the shooting, as activists allege that police and city officials tried to cover it up. The U.S. attorney’s office is investigating the shooting and its aftermath, and a number of officials have called for the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division to open a wider investigation of the police department’s practices, similar to ones conducted in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere.
The shooting happened while protests were still roiling Ferguson months after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown. His death revived questions about the police treatment of minorities throughout the United States and energized the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Chicago officials fought in court for months to keep the McDonald shooting video from being released publicly, before deciding in November not to fight a judge’s order. The city’s early efforts to suppress it coincided with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election campaign, when the mayor was seeking African-American votes, but he has denied the two were related.
Emanuel has said he didn’t see the video until it was released publicly. He and a number of aldermen have said they relied on the city attorney, who did view the video, when they signed off earlier this year on a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family even before the family filed a lawsuit.
In an op-ed article sent this weekend to the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, Emanuel denied that there was a cover-up and said he “strongly” rejects any connection to his re-election campaign. He said the “crimes of a small number of officers” shouldn’t taint the whole police department, but that he should have known that a delay in releasing the video would raise suspicions because of the department’s “checkered history of misconduct.”
Emanuel fired Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy earlier this week while announcing a task force to look for ways to improve police accountability.
The officers’ portrayal of the shooting, recorded in nearly 400 pages of handwritten and typed reports, prompted police supervisors to rule at the time that McDonald’s death was a justifiable homicide and within the bounds of the department’s use of force guidelines, even though the dashcam video also was available to them shortly after the shooting.
Chicago authorities also have not been able to explain why the dashcam footage released to the public, including from other squad cars on the scene, doesn’t include audio that could shed light on what happened.
Van Dyke’s attorney, Dan Herbert, maintains that Van Dyke feared for his life and acted lawfully. He and police union officials have argued that the video doesn’t tell the whole story. Herbert didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, and neither did police or union officials.
Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement late Friday that the city’s Independent Police Review Authority, not the Police Department, conducts all investigations of officer-involved shootings and that the agency was given the case report, the dash-cam video and other videos from the shooting scene. The authority, which did not return a message left Friday, has not released its report on the McDonald shooting.
“If the criminal investigation concludes that any officer participated in any wrongdoing, we will take swift action,” Guglielmi said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said the documents show police “misrepresenting” what happened and called for an escalation of protests Sunday in the city’s business district. “We want a full, thorough investigation with subpoena power,” Jackson said.
Requests for comment to spokespeople for Emanuel, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and the police review authority weren’t immediately returned.
The newly-released police reports repeatedly refer to McDonald as the “offender” and Van Dyke and the other officers as “victims.”
Van Dyke’s partner, identified as Joseph Walsh, told an investigator that he repeatedly yelled “Drop the knife!” at McDonald and backed up as the teenager “continued to advance toward the officers.” He said McDonald “swung the knife toward the officers in an aggressive manner” before Van Dyke shot him and that he believed McDonald was “attempting to kill them.”
Walsh said McDonald attempted to get up after falling, “while still armed with the knife.” He described how he eventually kicked the knife away from McDonald and then told the dying teenager “Hang in there” as an ambulance was called.
Another contradiction is whether McDonald’s knife was folded when officers recovered it at the scene. When announcing charges against Van Dyke, Alvarez said McDonald’s knife, which had a 3-inch blade, was folded. But one of the police reports said the recovered knife’s “blade was in the open position.”
One of the reports noted what it called McDonald’s “irrational behavior,” such as ignoring verbal directions, “growling” and making noises. PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, was found in McDonald’s system, according to Alvarez and the medical examiner’s report that was among the documents. The teen was being chased by police after reports he was burglarizing cars and slashing tires.
The police reports are blacked out in places, with those redactions covering signatures, a reporter’s cell phone number, the serial number of the officer’s gun and McDonald’s address.
Associated Press writer Michael Tarm contributed to this report.
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