CHICAGO (AP) — Three Chicago police officers were indicted Tuesday on felony charges that they conspired to cover up the actions of a white police officer who shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, and that the officers lied when they said the black teenager "aggressively" swung a knife at them and tried to get up from the ground still armed after he was shot.
The indictment alleges that one current and two former officers lied about the events of Oct. 20, 2014, when Officer Jason Van Dyke shot the teenager 16 times.
The officers' narratives contradict what can be seen on police dashcam video, in which the teenager spins after he was shot and falls to the ground — seemingly incapacitated — as the officer continues to fire shot after shot into his body. The indictment further alleges that officers lied when they said McDonald ignored Van Dyke's verbal commands and that one of the officers signed off on a report that claimed the other two officers were, in fact, victims of an attack by McDonald.
"The co-conspirators created police reports in the critical early hours and days following the killing of Laquan McDonald that contained important false information," says the indictment in which the three are charged with felony counts of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.
The indictments mark the latest chapter in what has been one of the most troubling stories in the history of a police force dogged by allegations of racism, brutality and the protection of officers who brutalize African-Americans. The video sparked massive protests, cost the police superintendent his job and left the city scrambling to implement reforms to regain shattered public trust.
In January, the Department of Justice issued a scathing report that found that the department had violated the constitutional rights of residents for years, including by too often using excessive force and killing suspects who posed no threat.
Around the country, there are renewed questions whether the legal system is willing to punish officers, particularly after two police officers — one in in Milwaukee and the other in Minnesota — were acquitted and a mistrial was declared in Cincinnati in the shootings of blacks that were captured by video.
Patricia Brown Holmes — appointed special prosecutor last July to investigate officers at the scene and involved in the investigation of the shooting — said in a news release that the three — David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney — "coordinated their activities to protect each other and other members of the Chicago Police Department," including by filing false police reports, ignoring contrary evidence and not even attempting to interview keys witnesses.
"The indictment makes clear that these defendants did more than merely obey an unofficial 'code of silence," Holmes said in the statement. "It alleges that they lied about what occurred to prevent independent criminal investigators from learning the truth."
The officers allegedly began to conspire almost immediately on the day of the shooting, "to conceal the true facts of the events surrounding the killing of Laquan McDonald" and "to shield their fellow officer from criminal investigation and prosecution."
The indictment alleges that the officers understood that, if video and other evidence became public, "it would inexorably lead to a thorough criminal investigation by an independent body and likely criminal charges."
It details Walsh's claim — contradicted by the video — in which the officer contends that, "When McDonald got within 12 to 15 feet of the officers he swung the knife toward the officers in an aggressive manner and that as Van Dyke was shooting McDonald the teen continued moving on the ground, attempting to get up while still armed with the knife."
According to the department, Walsh, who was Van Dyke's partner, and March, who as a detective found that the shooting was justified, have left the force. Gaffney remains but, per department policy, has been suspended because of the felony indictment.
"The shooting of Laquan McDonald forever changed the Chicago Police Department and I am committed to implementing policies and training to prevent an incident like this from happening again," Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a statement.
Johnson didn't comment specifically on the indictment. Kevin Graham, president of the officers' union, said the union has not yet reviewed it and declined to comment because it's an ongoing investigation.
Jeffrey Neslund, an attorney who helped negotiate a $5 million settlement with the city on behalf of the McDonald family, welcomed the indictments.
"This is the same thing that our investigation showed back when we were negotiating with the city in 2015, that there was a cover-up," he said.
Neslund said he has tried to contact McDonald's mother but has not been successful.
Van Dyke was charged more than a year after the shooting with first-degree murder on the same day that the city — under orders from a judge — made public the dashboard camera video. He has pleaded not guilty.
His attorney Dan Herbert released a fiery statement late Tuesday, alleging the indictment will silence potential witnesses and is "further proof that the government is determined to prevent" Van Dyke from having a fair trial.
If convicted, the three officers could face years in prison. The official misconduct charge alone carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
The officers weren't arrested and will be allowed to show up on their own accord at their arraignment on July 10, Holmes said. Asked why, she told a news conference later Tuesday "it's very typical for a situation like this to give a courtesy call to the defendants" and, if they're not deemed dangerous or a flight risk, to let them appear at their future arraignment.