Newly released documents from Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s investigation into the police shooting of Laquan McDonald paint a picture of police detectives using video evidence to help manipulate officers’ statements and craft a false narrative of the 2014 police shooting.
Multiple officers who were on the scene when Jason Van Dyke murdered the 17-year-old McDonald described being coached, or seeing others coached, through video of the shooting before making their official statements to detectives and city investigators, according to Ferguson’s investigation.
Ferguson was tasked with investigating the alleged police cover-up of what happened the night McDonald was killed. The investigation ultimately found that at least 11 officers lied to exaggerate the threat that McDonald posed to justify Van Dyke’s decision to shoot him.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration released thousands of pages of long-hidden records from that investigation on Wednesday, largely fulfilling a campaign promise.
The records paint a dim portrait of the city’s investigation, headed by Det. David March and his commanding officers, and they support the long-held belief by many that the Chicago Police Department conspired to justify Van Dyke’s actions.
Outrage over McDonald’s killing was based largely on a dashcam video showing the teen turning away from officers before Van Dyke shot him 16 times. That video, and another from a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts security camera, contradicted the official police narrative about McDonald’s death, but the newly-released IG documents show that from the beginning, city investigators were attempting to reconcile the video evidence with their version of the shooting.
Officer Dora Fontaine told the inspector general’s office that the night of the shooting, March took her into an office and showed her video of the shooting, and coached her on what she was seeing.
“[March] was showing me the video and he says, when [McDonald] was walking – he says, ‘It looks as if he’s turning here.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, it does,’” Fontaine said according to the IG reports. Then, March asked Fontaine again, “You see he kind of turns around?” Fontaine agreed that it did look as though McDonald “kind of turns.”
March has maintained that never happened.
Another officer, Joseph McElligott, told IG investigators officers gathered after the shooting at the Area Central Headquarters where he saw detectives and officers watching video of the shooting together. McElligott said he heard detectives “running through” the video with Van Dyke and his partner Joseph Walsh, and pointing out to the officers when it looked as if they were “back-pedaling” before the shooting. McElligott described the encounter as the detectives feeding information to the involved officers, and Van Dyke and Walsh agreeing with them.
Video actually shows Van Dyke step toward McDonald, but in police reports, Van Dyke claimed that he back-pedaled away from the teenager before opening fire.
McElligott’s partner the night of the shooting, Thomas Gaffney, said the officers who were there when McDonald was killed all sat together in a room at Area Central and discussed the incident.
“They had everybody together, we just -- in the room, we just talked or just pretty much kind of... said what they -- we had told everybody that what we had from the beginning, what happened from the beginning and how it progressed,” Gaffney said according to a transcript. “I don't know about comparing stories, but we just might have discussed things, yeah.”
Gaffney also said that before he went to the Area Central station, he viewed a video of the shooting in a police car at the scene of the shooting.
In its report on March, the inspector general’s office pointed out that, while the lead detective had spoken to Van Dyke and other officers on the scene, he did not take notes on what they said immediately after the shooting. Instead he waited to document their statements until after they had gone to Area Central, where at least some of them said they watched video of the shooting or talked with other officers.
In his interview with the inspector general’s office, March said he watched video of the shooting while at Area Central, and “may have” told the officers it was available for viewing, but denied specifically going into an office to view the video with anyone.
“If someone followed me in there, or, like I said, if somebody was curious and wanted to see the video, they might have been looking over my shoulder,” he said, according to the IG transcript.
March, along with Gaffney and Walsh, was found not guilty by a Cook County judge earlier this year of lying in police reports to justify McDonald’s killing.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid.