By Mark Berman
Three current or former police officers in Chicago were indicted on charges of conspiring to cover up the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager killed by an officer in 2014.
McDonald's death, captured in a video released the following year that shows him being shot while moving away from officers, set off protests and continues to reverberate through the Chicago police department. The officer who opened fire was charged with murder, while investigators also have focused on the behaviour of other officers following the shooting.
The indictment, announced by the special prosecutor investigating McDonald's shooting, charges the three veteran officers with trying to "conceal the true facts of the events surrounding the killing of Laquan McDonald".
"The indictment makes clear that these defendants did more than merely obey an unofficial 'code of silence,' rather it alleges that they lied about what occurred to prevent independent criminal investigators from learning the truth," Patricia Brown Holmes, the special prosecutor, said.
McDonald's death led to a sprawling federal investigation and the ouster of the department's superintendent. More than a year after McDonald was killed, authorities released video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 rounds at the teenager. Van Dyke was charged with murder the day the video was publicly released.
While the police union had said McDonald was holding a knife and approaching officers when he was killed, graphic video showed that the 17-year-old was veering away from officers when he was shot. A lawyer for Van Dyke has said he feared for his life at the time.
The video recording spurred outrage in Chicago, during which Mayor Rahm Emanuel dismissed Garry McCarthy, the police superintendent. Not long afterwards, the Justice Department began a probe into the Chicago police, concluding this year that the department has a pattern of routinely using excessive force and violating the rights of minority residents. The Justice Department and Chicago officials had pledged to seek a court-enforceable order imposing reforms, but that plan was thrown into question after the Trump Administration took office.
The city announced a series of policing reforms, while the Chicago Police Department last year also recommended firing several officers for lying about McDonald's killing, including Van Dyke.
The three-count indictment filed today said that Detective David March, 58, and patrol officers Joseph Walsh, 48, and Thomas Gaffney, 43, filed false police reports in the hours and days after the shooting "in an attempt to prevent or shape any criminal investigation".
The three officers were each charged with conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice.
In a statement, Holmes's office said that March has been a police officer for more than three decades, while both Walsh and Gaffney are each described as having about two decades on the Chicago police force. A Chicago police spokesman said only Gaffney was still with the department, adding that he would be suspended without pay due to the 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," Eddie Johnson, the Chicago police superintendent, said. "Throughout this investigation, CPD has fully cooperated with prosecutors and will continue to do so. We will also continue to implement meaningful reforms that build community trust, provide greater training and resources to our dedicated officers, and make Chicago safer."
According to the indictment, police reports filed after the shooting falsely stated that McDonald "committed aggravated assaults against" some of the officers, forcing Van Dyke to fatally shoot the teenager.
The indictment, only identifying Van Dyke as "Individual A," says that he, Walsh and Gaffney "prepared and submitted virtually identical . . . reports which contained critical information which they knew to be false." These reports said three officers were battered and injured during the encounter, the indictment continues, and described Van Dyke as fearing for his life when he fired at a knife-wielding, approaching McDonald.
The indictment also suggested that more people were involved in the plot, saying that "others known and unknown" to the grand jury failed to properly find witnesses and physical evidence, coordinated their actions and then sought to cover up these activities. Several unidentified people are also described in the indictment as giving false statements.
Holmes said the grand jury investigation into the shooting will continue. The three men are expected to appear in court on July 10.