In the latest development surrounding the extrajudicial killing of teenager Laquan McDonald by the scandal-plagued Chicago Police Department, three current and former Chicago police officers pleaded not guilty Monday to felony charges of conspiring to cover up the fatal 2014 shooting of the 17-year-old Black youth by a white officer.
Detective David March and Officers Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney were charged last month with conspiracy, official misconduct, and obstruction of justice. Walsh and March are no longer with the force. Gaffney was suspended without pay, Chicago police representatives said. All three men are white.
The indictments arose from the incident in which McDonald was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke. Video footage of the incident showed he was shot from a distance of ten feet while posing no threat to officers, walking in the opposite direction while apparently holding a pocket knife. Initially, Van Dyke had claimed that McDonald lunged at officers, posing an immediate danger.
The killing sparked widespread community outrage and days of mass mobilizations, as well as a Department of Justice investigation that revealed the extent of the CPD’s routine overuse of deadly force, racist discrimination against non-white communities and failure to hold officers accountable for rights abuses and cases of misconduct. Among other findings, the Justice Department found that “among the most egregious uses of deadly force … were incidents in which CPD officers shot at suspects who presented no immediate threat.”
The men entered their pleas at their arraignment in a packed Chicago courtroom before Circuit Judge Diane Gordon Cannon, who has earned a reputation in the local legal community for her brusque style in court and strong bias in favor of police and prosecutors.
A police dash-cam video of the shooting, released more than a year after the incident, was found to have been severely damaged or “intentionally destroyed”according to internal maintenance documents published by local media. Officers tampered with microphone antennas, stashed microphones in glove compartments and removed batteries to keep their devices from functioning properly, according to reports. The video’s release led to days of protests and thrust Chicago into the national discussion of excessive force by police against oppressed nationalities and communities of color in the United States.
The indictment described how officers created false reports on the killing of McDonald. According to court documents, the officers are alleged to have “coordinat(ed) their activities” in an effort to protect one another through the preparation of falsified police reports.
A special prosecutor who announced the charges noted that the officers’ conduct went far beyond the “unofficial ‘code of silence,’” a reference to an unwritten rule common across U.S. police departments that compels officers not to report errors or wrongdoings for fear of being a “snitch.” Members of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police blasted the indictments as “politically motivated” attacks on “scapegoats,” in reference to the three indicted officers, while the indictment was greeted by community representatives and social movement organizers long accustomed to police impunity.
“I am so tired of hearing about ‘we’ve got to rebuild this connection between law enforcement and the community,'” South Side Reverend Michael Pfleger said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “Until there is justice, until police are held accountable, that’s not going to happen. I cannot invite anybody to sit down at a table with police and rebuild a relationship when there’s a double standard.”
Tom Breen, Walsh’s lawyer, told reporters that his client would be acquitted. The judge set bond at US$50,000 and released the men on their own recognizance.
Van Dyke, who is facing charges of murder in the McDonald shooting, pled not guilty in 2015. In March, he pleaded not guilty to 16 new counts of aggravated battery. No trial date has been set.
The cases come after Chicago police in May finalized stricter limits on when officers can use firearms and other force, the latest attempt to reform a department roiled by misconduct and criticism in the wake of McDonald’s death.
Last month, members of Black Lives Matter Chicago and other groups sued the city to force federal court oversight of those reforms.
“Until people, particularly police officers that do wrong, are held accountable and arrested and put in jail, until that happens there will be no trust among the community and law enforcement,” Reverend Pfleger said at the hearing.
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