When Chicago police fatally shot a 17-year-old boy on a Southwest Side street in October 2014, the slaying was a small local story that hardly anyone noticed. It gained national attention only the next year, after the release of dashcam video showing a cop abruptly shooting Laquan McDonald as he walked away, riddling him with 16 rounds.
The evidence from that night was in many ways a credit to the police officers, several of whom had dutifully followed McDonald as he walked down the street holding a knife. Even when he stabbed the tire of a police car, these officers held their fire, striving to contain the offender without harm to anyone. Their conduct was a model of responsible, restrained policing.
But then Officer Jason Van Dyke pulled up in his squad car, jumped out and began emptying his service weapon. A situation that could have ended with McDonald under arrest ended with him bleeding to death on the pavement — because a single cop lost his head while those around him were keeping theirs.
Van Dyke's conduct was so egregious that he was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. It was a rare case of a trigger-happy cop being brought to justice.
I would like to report that his conviction came about because his fellow officers exposed his overreaction. But they didn't. The reports filed by other police conveyed that Van Dyke acted in self-defense while retreating from a criminal who lunged at him with a knife. It took the video to show that the official story, built on reports filed by officers and approved by their superiors, was false.
Even before the footage became public, the city settled with McDonald's family for $5 million. The city inspector general investigated and recommended that 11 officers be fired for their role in the cover-up. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy lost his job. Van Dyke was convicted.
But Thursday, three officers indicted for conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice were acquitted on all counts by a judge who gave them the benefit of every conceivable doubt. Presented with stark disparities between what the video showed and what the cops had said, the former prosecutor chose to disregard the evidence before her eyes.
Van Dyke's actions, though grossly unwarranted, came about in the heat of an unpredictable encounter with a scary suspect. But the cops who gave deceptive accounts of what happened have no such excuse.
"There were no hearts pounding when these crimes were committed," noted assistant special prosecutor Ronald Safer. "There was no adrenaline flowing. This case is not about the decision to shoot. This case is about what these defendants did in the calm, cool, reflective atmosphere of their offices."
The acquittal was a shock but, in a city (and country) with a history of unpunished police abuses, not entirely a surprise. No one ever got rich betting that Chicago police will face stern punishment for committing crimes in the line of duty.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged the cops' code of silence shortly after the video was released. "It is the tendency to ignore," he said. "It is the tendency to deny. It is the tendency in some cases to cover up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues."
A 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found, "This code is apparently strong enough to incite officers to lie even when they have little to lose by telling the truth," choosing "instead to risk their careers."
But honesty has its own hazards. An officer who implicates a colleague has to fear blowback. One sergeant told the Justice Department investigators that "if someone comes forward as a whistleblower in the department, they are dead on the street." In 2016, the city agreed to pay $2 million to a pair of officers who said they suffered retribution for giving evidence against corrupt colleagues.
The only way to combat this entrenched practice is to punish not only the officers who abuse citizens but the officers who look the other way or lie to protect the guilty. Chicago police are not likely to take the risk of making enemies of their fellow officers unless they genuinely fear losing their jobs and going to prison for concealing the truth.
That may happen someday, but as this case confirms, not yet. The police code of silence was on trial, and the code won.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.