4 Chicago Cops Fired In Alleged Cover-up For Jason Van Dyke | WBEZ
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4 Chicago Police Officers Fired In Alleged Cover-up For Jason Van Dyke

Updated 5:54 a.m.

Nearly five years after Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 16 rounds into teenager Laquan McDonald, a city panel voted nearly unanimously Thursday night to fire a sergeant and three other veteran officers, accusing them of betraying their duty by “outright lying or shading the truth.”

The Police Board, which makes the final decision in serious police discipline cases, backed an array of charges brought by the Police Department against Sgt. Stephen Franko, 48, and officers Janet Mondragon, 42, Daphne Sebastian, 50, and Ricardo Viramontes, 46.

A 55-page finding from the board blasted the four for conduct “antithetical” to their “duty to act with honesty and integrity and to accurately and completely report their observations.”

The finding condemned Mondragon, Sebastian and Viramontes, who were on the scene during the shooting, for “describing the alleged threat posed by Mr. McDonald in an exaggerated way while omitting relevant facts that support the opposite conclusion.”

The board found that their reports “depict a scene in which Mr. McDonald was the aggressor and Van Dyke the victim, a depiction squarely contradicted by reality.”

The officers tried to put the shooting “in the best possible light” for Van Dyke, according to the finding.

The board found that Franko, who arrived on the scene after the shooting, “failed to properly supervise his officers” and approved reports that “included several demonstrable and known falsehoods, including among other things that Van Dyke was injured by McDonald.”

The board’s nine members, appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted unanimously on three of the dismissals. On Sebastian’s firing, board member John P. O’Malley Jr. cast the sole dissenting vote.

The dismissals took place during the public portion of their monthly meeting at police headquarters on the city’s South Side. The vote followed deliberation and informal votes behind closed doors.

The board also received a report from hearing officer Thomas Johnson, who oversaw a trial-like evidentiary proceeding that lasted three days in April. The board members did not attend that hearing.

Reactions

The firings were denounced by leaders of a Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents rank-and-file Chicago officers.

“Your job is not to fall to the pressure of the media or the radical police haters but is rather to give each officer a fair hearing,” Patrick Murray, the lodge’s first vice-president, told the board members after they opened the floor for public comment.

“It is obvious that this Police Board has outserved its usefulness,” Murray said. “The FOP has made it our top priority that this board be dissolved. We do not have to agree to participate in this type of process as labor law allows us to proceed by way of arbitration,” an apparent reference to discipline-appeal provisions that are standard parts of union contracts.

But on Chicago’s West Side, where Laquan McDonald grew up, Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church said the firings provided hope.

“This is not exactly how we wanted this to end,” Acree said. “These guys should be headed to prison for collaborating to cover up a murder. But, in a flawed judicial system and in a city where the police department has been accused of systemic racism for several years, this is a small victory.”

Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, who led the investigation behind the dismissal charges, said the outcome was “a moment for the community to see that the mechanisms for accountability of police officers in Chicago actually can work as designed.”

After the meeting, Police Board President Ghian Foreman acknowledged that officers and community members were following the case but denied that the board meant the firings as a statement to them.

“The Police Board is not a body that tries to send a message to the whole Police Department or to all of the citizens of Chicago,” Foreman said. “We look at cases individually.”

False statements

Ferguson’s investigation lasted much of 2016 and led to his recommendation that 11 officers be fired. Several officers resigned before they could face discipline — including Chief of Detectives Eugene Roy and Deputy Patrol Chief David McNaughton, the highest-ranking cops on the scene after the shooting.

Franko, Mondragon, Sebastian and Viramontes did not resign, even after Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson brought the dismissal charges, accusing all four of violating multiple department regulations, including a rule against false statements and reports.

Johnson also accused Franko of approving false reports by Van Dyke and his patrol partner that night, Joseph Walsh.

The Police Board put the dismissal cases on hold in 2017 at the request of judges overseeing criminal proceedings stemming from the shooting. That decision led the Police Department to end unpaid suspensions of the four officers. The department withheld their police powers and assigned them to desk duty.

Franko, a 26-year CPD veteran, is the sole police supervisor to have faced administrative or criminal charges tied to the McDonald shooting.

During the April hearing, a CPD Internal Affairs commander disputed Franko’s claim he had no responsibility for the accuracy of reports by his subordinates that McDonald had “battered” and “injured” Van Dyke — claims disproved by a now-infamous dashcam video that the sergeant admitted viewing within hours of the shooting. Franko signed off on the reports as “approving supervisor” or “reviewing supervisor.”

Viramontes, who began on the force in 2003, was driving up as McDonald took his final steps. At the hearing, he testified that the teen “was walking aggressively” but admitted that “it wasn’t toward the officers on the scene.” Once McDonald was shot to the pavement, Viramontes testified he saw the teen “using his arms to try to push himself up,” a claim contradicted by the video.

Mondragon, a 12-year department veteran, doubled down on previous statements that she did not see who shot McDonald despite being in the driver’s seat of the SUV that recorded the video. She testified she was putting the SUV into park for “two or three seconds” and, during the other 12 seconds of gunfire, she was focused on the teenager, who was presenting “the threat.”

Sebastian, who started with CPD in 2002, was the passenger in that same SUV. At the hearing, she insisted she saw McDonald “closing the gap” that separated the teen from Van Dyke and making threatening movements, even from the ground.

An attorney for the Police Department countered that McDonald’s movements on the pavement were caused by the bullets hitting his body.

Lawyers for the officers argued that the city had no proof their clients lied and that the officers were just doing their jobs and reporting what they had observed.

The four officers can challenge their terminations in Cook County Circuit Court.

Legal battles

The dismissals continue civil, criminal and administrative litigation that has roiled Chicago since Van Dyke shot McDonald, 17, who was high on PCP as he refused police commands to drop a knife while walking away from officers on a Southwest Side street the night of Oct. 20, 2014.

The dashcam video, withheld from the public for more than a year, enabled the teen’s mother and sister to get a $5 million settlement from the city in 2015.

Later that year, a Cook County judge ordered the city to release the video. Much of the ensuing public anger focused on contradictions between that recording and the reports by officers that McDonald was attacking Van Dyke.

The protests led to a yearlong U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found widespread constitutional abuses by CPD and a lack of accountability for the misconduct. That probe led to a police reform agreement, known as a consent decree, that took effect in March and is enforceable by a federal judge.

Last October, a Cook County jury convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. Judge Vincent Gaughan in January sentenced him to 81 months in prison with the possibility of release in half that time. Van Dyke, listed as a federal inmate in New York, is scheduled for release in February 2022.

In a separate criminal case, Walsh, Officer Thomas Gaffney and Detective David March were charged with engaging in a cover-up. Those defendants opted for a bench trial that concluded in January. Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson found them not-guilty. Walsh and March had both resigned before the trial. Gaffney remained on the force.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipMitchell1WBEZ criminal justice reporter Patrick Smith contributed. Follow him at @pksmid.


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