By Bernard E. Harcourt | THERE’S been a cover-up in Chicago. The city’s leaders have now brought charges against a police officer, Jason Van Dyke, for the first-degree murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. But for more than a year, Chicago officials delayed the criminal process, and might well have postponed prosecution indefinitely, had it not been for a state court forcing their hand.
They prevented the public from viewing crucial incriminating evidence — first one police car’s dashboard camera video; now, we learn, five such videos in total. And these senior officials turned a blind eye to the fact that 86 minutes of other video surveillance footage of the crime scene was unaccountably missing.
The Cook County prosecutor, Anita Alvarez, must have had probable cause to indict Officer Van Dyke for the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting death of Mr. McDonald the moment she viewed the police dash-cam video, after her office received it two weeks later. That video, in her own words, was “everything that it has been described to be by the news accounts. It is graphic. It is violent. It is chilling.”
Ms. Alvarez, and other city leaders, surely knew they would have to indict Mr. Van Dyke for murder as soon as the public saw that footage. “I have absolutely no doubt,” Ms. Alvarez finally said last week, “that this video will tear at the hearts of all Chicagoans.”
But the timing, in late 2014, was not good.
Then up for re-election, the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, was looking ahead to a contested election on Feb. 24, 2015, which would ultimately result in a runoff election on April 7. In Ferguson, Mo., a grand jury was hearing testimony on the police shooting of Michael Brown. The video of Eric Garner being choked to death during an arrest in New York had gone viral. The Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum across the country.
The video of a police shooting like this in Chicago could have buried Mr. Emanuel’s chances for re-election. And it would likely have ended the career of the police superintendent, Garry F. McCarthy.
And so the wheels of justice virtually ground to a halt. Mayor Emanuel refused to make the dash-cam video public, going to court to prevent its release. The city argued that releasing the video would taint the investigation of the case, but even the attorney general of Illinois urged the city to make it available.
Then the city waited until April 15 — one week after Mr. Emanuel was re-elected — to get final approval of a pre-emptive $5 million settlement with Mr. McDonald’s family, a settlement that had been substantially agreed upon weeks earlier. Still, the city’s lawyers made sure to include a clause that kept the dash-cam video confidential.
Around the time the freelance journalist Brandon Smith filed suit for release of the dash-cam video, on Aug. 5, 2015, the Chicago Police Department told him that it had already received, and rejected, 14 other Freedom of Information Act requests for the evidence. The city spent thousands of dollars in legal expenses to keep the video under wraps. And it would probably have continued to do so, had Judge Franklin Valderrama of the Cook County Circuit Court not ordered its release.
Meanwhile, the state’s prosecutor, Ms. Alvarez, concluded that there had been no evidence of tampering when police officers allegedly erased 86 minutes of video footage from Burger King surveillance cameras close to the location of Mr. McDonald’s shooting by Officer Van Dyke. The missing footage was from 9:13 to 10:39 p.m. — bracketing the time when Mr. McDonald was shot (around 9:50 p.m.).
City leaders did everything in their power to keep the homicide from the public as long as possible. Indeed, Mr. Van Dyke was indicted only after the forced release of the videos.
Commissioner, the prosecutor, and the whole corrupt Chicago hierarchy needs to be prosecuted for this and many more…
We can surmise that each had particular reasons. Mayor Emanuel was fighting for re-election in a tight race. Superintendent McCarthy wanted to keep his job. Ms. Alvarez needed the good will of the police union for her coming re-election campaign and probably wished to shield the police officers who bring her cases and testify in court.
None of that alters the fact that these actions have impeded the criminal justice system and, in the process, Chicago’s leaders allowed a first-degree murder suspect, now incarcerated pending bail, to remain free for over a year on the city’s payroll.
There is good reason to appoint an independent commission to investigate the conduct of these public servants. But frankly, at this point, who would trust Chicago’s political institutions or criminal justice system?
An investigation would create further delay in justice and distract our attention from the real issues at hand: the senseless death of a 17-year-old, and the systemic problems of excessive police violence and lack of accountability.
Rather than hold hearings, investigate and perhaps prosecute its leaders, the city of Chicago needs to restore trust. These officials no longer have the public’s confidence. They should resign.
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© 2015. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com