Seven weeks ago, a familiar story was reported in Chicago media: a young black man was killed by the police. His name was Laquan McDonald. He was 17 years old.
Here is what the press reported based on what they were told by police sources:
On the night of October 20, a squad car responded to a call that someone was trying to break into cars in an industrial area on the southwest side. The officers found a boy with a knife in the street. He ignored their orders to drop the knife. A police spokesman described the boy in terms that suggest he was emotionally disturbed. (“He’s got a 100-yard stare. He’s staring blankly.”) The responding officers didn’t have a Taser. Waiting for one to arrive, they followed the boy in their squad car, as he walked a block to 41st and Pulaski.
A second squad car arrived. The boy again refused to drop the knife. The police tried to use the two vehicles to box him in against a construction fence on Pulaski. He punctured a tire and damaged the front windshield of one of the police cars. Officers got out of their vehicles. The boy approached them with the knife in his hand. One of the officers shot him in the chest. He was pronounced dead at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Several times a month, stories such as this one appear in Chicago media. The basic elements are generally the same. A black man is shot by a Chicago police officer. Police sources at the scene say the shooting was justified. The Independent Police Review Authority says it is investigating the incident. Then silence. After a year or two, IPRA issues a report confirming that the shooting was indeed justified.
This is in sharp contrast to how the CPD handles high-profile cases of incidents of violence involving civilians. In such cases, the department recognizes and accommodates the public's interest in timely information. Surely, the public interest is at least as strong, if not stronger, when citizens are shot by the police.
Over the last decade, black Chicagoans were ten times more likely to be shot by the police than whites. Decades have passed—and hundreds of African-Americans have been shot by Chicago police—since charges were last brought against an officer for a shooting while on duty. The public interest in information about these patterns could hardly be more compelling.
Last March, in Kalven v. Chicago, the Illinois Appellate Court held that documents bearing on allegations of police abuse are public information. Following the decision, the Emanuel administration adopted a new transparency policy that opened the police department to the people in historic ways. The Kalven decision is limited to closed police misconduct cases; it doesn’t cover ongoing investigations. Yet the public interest in the City's investigation into a police shooting is far more intense at the time of the shooting than one or two years later when the case is closed and public attention has turned elsewhere.
Consider the fate of Laquan McDonald. We have looked into the incident at 41st and Pulaski. What we have learned raises troubling questions about the all-too-familiar story of a justified shooting that police sources told the media.
So far as we have been able to determine Laquan was a ward of the state with no one to speak for him. The site where he was killed is a mostly vacant area closed off by a metal construction fence. Laquan posed no immediate threat to anyone. And there was nowhere for him to run.
According to a witness whose car was stopped on Pulaski by the unfolding drama, several officers got out of their squad cars. With no apparent provocation—the boy was shying away rather than lunging toward them—a white male officer shot Laquan, who fell to the ground.
After a pause, as the boy writhed on the ground, the officer fired repeatedly into his body.
The Cook County Medical Examiners Office ruled the death a homicide, after the autopsy established that Laquan had died of multiple gunshot wounds. Just how many bullet holes does the word “multiple” cover?
There is almost certainly video footage of the incident. CPD policy requires officers to activate their dashboard cameras when in pursuit. And it's clear from both the police narrative and witness accounts that the squad cars on the scene had clear perspectives on the sequence of events. (It’s also possible that surveillance cameras at the Burger King on the northwest corner of 41st and Pulaski and the Dunkin Donuts on the southeast corner captured relevant footage.)
Ultimately, the issue of transparency in this case turns on the question being posed by public demonstrations across the nation: how much do we, as a society dedicated to equality under law, value black lives?
Demonstrators are not yet raising their voices on behalf of Laquan McDonald.
Perhaps they should.
We call on the City to release all video footage of the incident.
University of Chicago Law School
8 December 2014