Two Chicago police officers fighting a recommendation to fire them for allegedly lying about Laquan McDonald’s killing testified Wednesday afternoon that the teenager was making threatening moves with a knife he was carrying and, after he was shot to the pavement, that he kept moving.
Officer Daphne Sebastian, who was riding in the SUV where the now-infamous dashcam video of the shooting was recorded, told a Police Board hearing officer that McDonald was “closing the gap” that separated the teen from Jason Van Dyke, the officer who fired the 16 shots that killed the teen.
“It appeared (McDonald) was doing all kinds of body movements, like bouncing and walking,” Sebastian said, doubling down on a statement she gave to city investigators looking at the police department’s handling of the shooting. “His arm appeared to be swinging.”
After he was shot down, Sebastian said, “I observed him moving on the ground.”
Ricardo Viramontes, another officer fighting for his job, was driving up as McDonald took his final steps.
“He was walking aggressively,” Viramontes testified, admitting that “it wasn’t toward the officers on the scene.”
An instant before gunshots spun McDonald to the pavement, “he made a twisting motion,” Viramontes testified.
Asked by an attorney for Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who is seeking the officers’ termination, whether that movement could have resulted from being shot, Viramontes answered: “Maybe. It could have.”
Once McDonald was on the ground, Viramontes testified, “he was using his arms to try to push himself up.”
An attorney for the city played the video on a monitor of the hearing room and asked Viramontes to point out when McDonald was trying to get back up.
“This is not my perspective,” Viramontes answered, trying to explain the difference between his testimony and the recording, which shows little movement by McDonald once he is on the ground.
An attorney for one of the officers argued there is a big difference between a lie and a perception.
The officers’ testimony came on the first day of an evidentiary hearing about whether the Police Board should fire Sebastian, Viramontes, fellow officer Janet Mondragon and Sgt. Stephen Franko, all accused of covering up for Van Dyke, who shot McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.
Johnson brought the dismissal charges in 2016 but they went on hold for Van Dyke’s murder trial. Now Van Dyke has been sent to prison and the dismissal cases are proceeding.
In his opening statement Wednesday, an attorney for Johnson said the alleged cover-up had increased community distrust with CPD.
“The dishonesty of a single officer may cast suspicion and disrespect on the entire department,” the attorney, John Gibbons, said. “That is what this case is about.”
But lawyers for the officers said their clients were just doing their jobs and reporting what they had observed.
“All we ask is that you look carefully at all the evidence you’re going to see and stand in her shoes,” said Brian Sexton, who represented Sebastian and said what she reported about the shooting “sure as hell doesn’t amount to a lie.”
Franko, who supervised the three officers and arrived on the scene later that night, testified he had seen only “bits and pieces” of the dashcam video before signing off on police reports contradicted by the footage. Those reports included statements that McDonald had battered Van Dyke with the knife.
Franko insisted that his duty regarding those reports was merely to ensure “legibility and completeness,” not accuracy.
But Gibbons accused Franko of flouting a CPD requirement that officers be “honest in thought and deed.”
“Don’t sign off on reports that are misleading, inaccurate and flat-out false,” Gibbons said.
Two former officers acquitted of felony charges in the alleged cover-up were subpoenaed to testify at the Police Board hearing. But Det. David March, who was CPD’s lead investigator for the shooting, and Joseph Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s patrol partner that night, both indicated they would assert Fifth Amendment rights protecting them from self-incrimination.
Attorneys in the case on Wednesday agreed to withdraw the subpoenas.
The Police Board hearing is expected to run through Friday.
Hearing officer Thomas Johnson, who is overseeing the proceedings, will eventually report to the board’s nine members about evidence and witness credibility.
The board’s decision on whether to fire the officers will take place behind closed doors. That decision can be challenged in Cook County circuit court.