Cedric Alexander: The killing of Laquan McDonald happened incredibly fast; the cover-up lasted more than a year
Official evasion, deception and delay have made a terrible event corrosive and destructive, he writes
Editor’s Note: Cedric L. Alexander is a CNN law enforcement analyst and director of public safety at the DeKalb County Police Department in Georgia. He is a former national president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. The views expressed are his own.
The shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old Southside Chicago youth, happened incredibly fast.
We know precisely how fast because police dashcam video marked every second. At 9:57:19, McDonald runs up the middle of Pulaski Road as two police vehicles approach. At 9:57:25, he slows to a walk, a small knife visible in his right hand, and moves to the right of approaching police vehicles.
One of these vehicles carries Officer Jason Van Dyke. At 9:57:28, it stops near McDonald, and Van Dyke emerges (9:57:30), weapon drawn.
Six seconds pass before Van Dyke fires his first shot (9:57:36). McDonald spins and falls to the pavement at 9:57:37.
During the next 13 seconds, Van Dyke empties his gun, firing 15 rounds into the prone figure of Laquan McDonald. The last shot is fired at 9:57:50. Five seconds later, Van Dyke’s partner approaches the motionless 17-year-old and kicks the knife out of his right hand. He does not touch or otherwise attend to him. No one does during the 60 seconds before the dashcam footage ends at 9:58:55.
From shot 1 to shot 16, a fast 14 seconds on the night of October 20, 2014. But what happened after those seconds happened very slowly — at least as far as the public was concerned. CNN reported that, in April 2014, the Chicago City Council voted a $5 million settlement for Laquan McDonald’s family. They had yet to file a lawsuit. When the council voted, no council member had yet seen the dashcam video. City officials told them it could not be released while the FBI and U.S. attorney were investigating.
On November 25, 2015, 13 months after the shooting, Alderman Howard B. Brookins Jr. said he believed, “We were misled. It is evident now that at the time of the settlement, the tape could have been released. … There was no need for significant delay.”
Apparently, police and city officials believed there was a need — not only to delay the release but also to withhold the video entirely.
Clearly, the content of the video directly contradicts the original “official” CPD account, which was that provided by Pat Camden, at the time a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police. McDonald, who was being pursued for breaking into vehicles, “punctured one of the squad car’s front passenger-side tires and damaged the front windshield,” Camden told reporters. “Officers got out of their car and began approaching McDonald, … telling him to drop the knife.” Camden said the “boy allegedly lunged at police, and one of the officers opened fire.”
The video shows nothing of the kind. But Camden’s narrative stood publicly as “the truth” between October 21, 2014, and November 25, 2015.
So is the video now the real truth?
Well, there were five CPD Tahoe vehicles at the scene, all of which, according to the department’s own regulations, should have fully functioning dashcams. Only two, however, were documented as functioning, and we have only one actual video, which includes no intelligible audio, even though every vehicle has a front and a rear microphone and the dashcam automatically records both video and audio.
In addition to the dashcams, a nearby Burger King had a security camera, but 86 minutes, including the span of the shooting, are missing from its video recording. The Chicago Tribune reported that, “Minutes after McDonald was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke on a Southwest Side street, several police officers entered a Burger King located just yards from where the teen fell, demanding to view the restaurant’s password-protected surveillance video, (according to) Jay Darshane, a district manager for the fast-food chain…When the police left the restaurant almost two hours later, the video had an inexplicable 86-minute gap that included when McDonald was shot, according to Darshane.”
For months, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez fought a reporter’s lawsuit seeking release of the police dashcam video. They fought right up to the time a judge ordered its release. Mere hours before it was released, Alvarez charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder.
We don’t know if the video is the truth. But after 13 months of deliberate delay, during which other evidence may have been suppressed, tampered with or destroyed, it is certainly the closest thing we have to the truth.
And this is very wrong and very bad — for the victim and his family, for Chicago’s poor neighborhoods of color, for every neighborhood in every American city. It is wrong and it is bad for the great majority of Chicago police officers, who do a hard and dangerous job that has now been made harder and more dangerous. It is wrong and bad for police officers everywhere, who need the trust of the community. It is wrong, bad and dangerous for every American community, which have the right to feel confident in the police whose duty it is to protect them.
I should add that what happened will not be good for many who now hold high office in Chicago. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has already lost his job, and can anyone believe it will end there?
A jury will decide if a crime was committed on Pulaski Road on October 20, 2014. But we already know that a tragedy took place there. In itself, it is terrible. Official evasion, deception and delay have made a terrible event corrosive and destructive. When the news is bad, our leaders have a duty to deliver it. Whether the news is bad for us or bad for them, they need to disclose it, fast and in full. Bad news does not improve with age.
(Note: This article has been updated to correctly attribute and add details from a Chicago Tribune piece reporting on the gap in the Burger King video.)