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City releases files from watchdog's probe of fatal Chicago police shooting of Laquan McDonald

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 10/9/2019 By Jeremy Gorner and John Byrne, Chicago Tribune
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Video by ABC News

Oct. 9--After city officials for years kept a Chicago government watchdog's investigation into the Laquan McDonald police shooting under wraps, Mayor Lori Lightfoot's administration released a trove of records to the public on Wednesday, a key move in her campaign promise to try to build trust in the way high-profile police misconduct allegations are handled.

This marks the first time the city's Law Department has publicly released reports from Inspector General Joseph Ferguson's investigation of police Officer Jason Van Dyke's 2014 fatal shooting of McDonald.

Lightfoot got the City Council to pass a measure last month to give her corporation counsel the authority to decide whether to release the inspector general's investigations in cases that involve a death or that "is or may be a felony ... and is of a compelling public interest."

McDonald's death, captured on police dashboard camera video, was a pivotal moment for the city. "16 shots and a cover-up" -- a reference to the number of times Van Dyke shot McDonald as the teen walked with a knife on a Southwest Side street -- became a rallying cry for critics who said officers weren't held accountable for misdeeds. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder last fall and sentenced to 6 3/4 years in prison.

Former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke and his attorney Daniel Herbert listen to the proceedings during Van Dyke's sentencing hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building January 18, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. © Antonio Perez-Pool/Getty Images Former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke and his attorney Daniel Herbert listen to the proceedings during Van Dyke's sentencing hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building January 18, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.

Ferguson conducted a broader investigation into whether other officers and Police Department brass covered for Van Dyke in the shooting's aftermath.

While she was running for mayor, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel's handling of the McDonald shooting and its fallout casting a long shadow over the race, Lightfoot promised to bring greater ethics and transparency to city government. When she introduced the measure to allow the release of the inspector general reports in July, she framed it as another way in which she's delivering on that pledge. She reiterated that in a statement Wednesday.

"Our residents have a right to understand the decisions being made by their government," the statement read in part. "...The release of these documents today represents the first of many steps we are taking to ensure our City operates with nothing short of the highest levels of transparency."

Nearly three years ago, the Chicago Tribune exclusively obtained thousands of pages of confidential reports from the inspector general's investigation, much of which has now been released publicly Wednesday. The Tribune has periodically run stories with details from those reports. Among the highlights:

-- Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, while a deputy chief of patrol, was among top brass that viewed now-infamous video of McDonald's shooting about 10 days after the incident and didn't raise any objection to Van Dyke's actions, according to an interview by Ferguson's investigators with a police lieutenant who was in attendance. The story also highlighted what Van Dyke told authorities happened, in which he alleged McDonald was coming after him: "I think he's going to try and take my life away from me," he said.

-- Ferguson's office recommended that 11 officers -- including the two highest-ranking on the scene, Chief of Detectives Eugene Roy and Deputy Chief David McNaughton -- be fired for their alleged roles in covering up the circumstances of the shooting. This story gave an overview of the allegations against each.

-- The police-involved killing that would rock Chicago started out with what seemed like a routine burglary. This story gives a chronological rundown of how McDonald's and Van Dyke's paths crossed the night of the October 2014 shooting.

-- Officers in the department's higher ranks either justified the shooting or took little action after viewing chilling dashcam video of McDonald's shooting, Ferguson's report showed, raising questions as to whether the top brass participated in or enabled the code of silence that critics say pervades the department.

-- This story looks at the critical role that Officer Dora Fontaine, who was interviewed by Ferguson's team, was expected to play at the trial of three former or current colleagues who were ultimately acquitted, in a controversial ruling by a judge, of charges they exaggerated the threat posed by McDonald.

-- The Tribune's graphics team took a minute-by-minute look at how Van Dyke's shooting of McDonald unfolded on a Southwest Side street, based on Ferguson's investigation and Tribune reporting.

-- Acting on the superintendent's recommendation, the Police Board held hearings and ultimately decided to fire a sergeant and three officers for helping cover up the truth about McDonald's shooting. This preview story includes details from the cops' interviews with Ferguson's investigators.

Among the newly released IG reports the Tribune had not previously obtained includes four reports on officers who were accused of failing to ensure that their in-car audio recorders or dashboard cameras were working properly. Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson handed down week-long suspensions to officers accused of those infractions.

Additionally, the released reports include one on Lt. Anthony Wojcik, a detective supervisor whom the IG said destroyed evidence. According to the IG, Wojcik improperly disposed of police reports with handwritten notes from his detectives' interviews with three civilian witnesses, then personally "recreated" those three reports without asking the detectives who wrote them to review the reports for accuracy. The IG said Wojcik didn't tell the detectives he'd done that until several months after the police portion of the McDonald shooting investigation was over.

Wojcik retired from the department in May 2016 while Ferguson's investigation was still ongoing. But his office would have recommended that the department fire him, according to the reports.

Ferguson's office ended up recommending the firing of 11 officers in all, but the two highest-ranking both quietly retired before Johnson acted on Ferguson's recommendations.

In addition, two historic trials at the Leighton Criminal Court Building produced mixed results. While Van Dyke became the first Chicago cop in half a century to be convicted of an on-duty murder, a judge cleared three other officers -- including Van Dyke's partner -- of criminal conspiracy charges in a controversial ruling in January.

Tribune reporter Dan Hinkel contributed.

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

jebyrne@chicagotribune.com

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(c)2019 the Chicago Tribune

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