For a year and a half, this nation has engaged in an important debate over the treatment of racial minorities, mostly African-American, by the police. One of the arguments offered in defense of the police, as an institution, is that there are bad actors in every profession, but the vast majority of police officers are honest and hardworking public servants.
Sometimes there have been numbers placed to this claim – such as 95 percent of police officers are good, we are simply seeing the actions of a few bad actors. Perhaps that is true, but we also know throughout history that there have been problem departments like Rampart (a division of the LA Police Department) in Los Angeles in the 1990s, and the culture of corruption that Frank Serpico and the Knapp Commission helped to bring down in New York.
I work frequently with honest and hard-working police officers, but at the same time, I think there is a problem that is much larger than a few bad apples.
When Officer Michael Slager killed 50-year-old Walter Scott, he told investigators that he feared for his life, there was a struggle, the suspect took his Taser, and he fired eight times out of self-defense.
“Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser,” Officer Slager told a dispatcher. But for a video that he did not even know was being filmed, he probably would have gotten away with it.
Right there, that should be a red flag that incidents of officers lying to cover up their missteps are more frequent than we know. In the last year, we have even seen cases where the officer has told lies even when he knows that the camera has recorded the encounter.
However, I think it’s easy to dismiss the actions of Officer Slager as sort of the lone wolf of policing. He, after all, was on his own, there were no witnesses, and therefore his lies were his own.
What happened in Chicago is much more serious and much more telling of a potential problem that exists systemwide. Yes, it’s easy to point the finger at corrupt Chicago – notorious for its machine politics and corruption – and say it’s an outlier. And perhaps it is.
This week, the head of the Independent Police Review Authority resigned. According to published reports, the authority investigated 409 cases of police-involved shootings in an eight-year period ending September 30, and found only two unjustified – both involving off-duty police.
The Washington Post editor notes that there are “legal protections enshrined in union contracts as well as a state law known as the law enforcement officers’ ‘bill of rights.’” California has similar protection. One protection they note, “Officers involved in a shooting are afforded a 24-hour grace period before they must speak to investigators — a privilege that may be used to ensure their accounts jibe with those of their colleagues.”
The Laquan McDonald killing is particularly concerning, not because Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald. Not because he claimed that Mr. McDonald was menacing him with a knife when the video shows the man moving away from officers.
The biggest problem here is that Mr. Van Dyke was not acting alone. There were seven other officers on the scene and five of them corroborated the account of Mr. Van Dyke. But it is worse than that – police investigators, as we know, went into the Burger King that had video cameras that might have captured the incident on video and, as we saw earlier this week, they appeared to have deleted 86 minutes of the footage.
Jay Darshane, District Manager of Burger King said, “We had no idea they were going to sit there and delete the files.” He added, “I mean, we were just trying to help the police officers.”
The missing video gap in the footage ran from 9:13 pm to 10:39 pm. Jason Van Dyke fired his first shot at 9:57, according to the charges.
News 5 reports that Prosecutor Anita Alvarez said at her press conference “that no one in her judgment tampered with the Burger King video.” The broadcast shows her stating that “forensic testing was done on the Burger King surveillance to determine if anyone had tampered with the evidence and the testing did not reveal any such evidence.”
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy claimed “technical difficulties” with the footage, but that in no way was anything tampered with. Two days after the News 5 broadcast, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Mr. McCarthy.
The Chicago Tribune does us the favor of going through the video frame by frame and matching it against officer police reports now released from the investigation into the shooting.
They write that these pages “are most striking for one simple reason: They are dramatically at odds with the dash-cam video…”
They continue, “The reports, released by the city late Friday, show that Officer Jason Van Dyke and at least five other officers claim that the 17-year-old McDonald moved or turned threateningly toward officers, even though the video of the October 2014 shooting shows McDonald walking away…”
“At least one patrol officer said McDonald was advancing on the officers in a menacing way and swung his knife at them in an ‘aggressive, exaggerated manner’ before he was shot and killed. Officers claimed, too, that even after McDonald had been shot by Van Dyke, the teen tried to lift himself off the ground with the knife pointed toward the officers, and though he had been mortally wounded, still presented a threat,” they write.
The most striking thing is not that Mr. Van Dyke lied, but that everyone involved here lied.
The Washington Post editorial – pointed as it is – suggests that these problems are limited to Chicago. They write, “The problems in Chicago are complex and decades in the making; cleaning up the police force will require investigators to use a wide aperture.”
This implies that the problem ends in Chicago, rather than in a system where police make mistakes, compound those mistakes with lies, and even the so-called good police officers are reluctant to come forward to tell the truth and call out their fellow officers.
The so-called blue code of silence casts aspersions on the entire institution and leads one to wonder just how deep these problems really go. We just don’t know about it because, until recently, so much of what police did occurred under the cover of night and under the color of law and the blue code of silence.
—David M. Greenwald reporting