The Chicago police investigation of the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald unfolded like hundreds of others had before it, with an officer who claimed he fired in fear of his life, fellow cops who backed up his story and supervisors who quickly signed off on the case as a justifiable homicide.
The routine way the Police Department went about clearing Officer Jason Van Dyke — who now stands charged with murder in McDonald’s death — is at the heart of what critics of the department have often referred to as the code of silence.
It’s an issue that City Hall finally acknowledged amid the fallout over the McDonald scandal. But now a Cook County grand jury has alleged the code of silence is much more than just a problem — it’s criminal.
In a move some lawyers called unprecedented, the special prosecutor appointed to look into how police handled the probe into the McDonald shooting announced that three veteran officers were indicted on felony charges alleging they conspired to cover up the details of the death to protect Van Dyke.
Detective David March and patrol Officers Thomas Gaffney and Joseph Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner on the night of the shooting, were each charged with conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice, according to the 12-page indictment.
At an afternoon news conference, special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said the three officers lied to keep the truth from independent criminal investigators.
“The indictment makes clear that it is unacceptable to obey an unofficial code of silence,” Holmes said.
Police dashcam video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times as he walked away from police while holding a knife has caused a firestorm of controversy and led to calls for major reforms of the Police Department. The accounts of several officers dramatically differed from the video.
The indictment stopped short of criminally charging department higher-ups in the alleged cover-up even though several had been recommended for firing by the city inspector general’s office for their actions.
The charges noted, however, that several undisclosed supervisors completed or approved some of the allegedly falsified police reports.
Holmes said that the grand jury probe continues but declined to say whether others could still be charged.
“We will follow all roads where they lead, and we will seek the truth,” Holmes told reporters.
The most serious charge — obstruction — carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, prosecutors said. The three officers are scheduled to be arraigned July 10 at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.
A representative of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file officers, said it had not reviewed the indictment and declined comment. It was not known if any of the three officers have criminal defense attorneys.
But in a statement emailed through a publicist Tuesday night, attorney Daniel Herbert, who represents Van Dyke, blasted the indictment as a political effort to silence witnesses in his murder case and prevent a fair trial.
“Apparently, the rule of law is trumped by special interest groups and politicians,” he said.
Herbert also shifted blame to the police command staff, saying that if the allegations are true they must be part of the conspiracy as well because “they were aware of the reports and video when they signed off on the shooting.”
Critics who have long fought to get the city to acknowledge the code of silence said Tuesday that the charges could mark a significant milestone in ongoing efforts to reform a police culture that many have labeled among the worst in the country.
“This does really send a message that you could be charged just for sitting back even if you aren’t the primary actor,” said Christopher Smith, an attorney who represented two former officers who alleged they were ostracized for trying to blow the whistle on the code of silence. “That gives good officers the excuse to come forward and say I am not going to risk my family, risk my job.”
Civil rights lawyers who pushed for a special prosecutor in the hot-button case praised the charges, even if department higher-ups weren’t indicted.
“The indictment may not go high enough as it stands right now,” said G. Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office. “But it certainly is a historic and significant event in terms of criminally charging police officers who engage in a code of silence.” Continue Reading
Article Org: chicagotribune.com