Newly-appointed Chicago Police Chief John Escalante approved police reports on the shooting of Laquan McDonald, which were filled with fabrications by officers, including Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is charged with murdering McDonald.
On October 20, 2014, Van Dyke arrived at a scene where officers were trying to apprehend the 17-year-old black boy. He was only present for 30 seconds before he chose to unload his 9-mm semiautomatic pistol. Van Dyke fired 16 shots into McDonald’s body, and while police later claimed he lunged at Van Dyke with a knife, video shows he never presented any immediate threat whatsoever.
At the time of the shooting, Escalante was chief of detectives. He approved a Department of Detectives report in March, and, through his approval, essentially cleared Van Dyke of misconduct.
Escalante was asked about this at a press conference with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on December 7. The press conference was held to announce the new head of the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) and took place hours after a Justice Department investigation into the police department was announced.
“We know now from reading these reports the officers’ accounts were not consistent with the videotape. You were the head of detectives back then. How could you have approved that report?” a reporter asked.
Escalante answered, “There actually was never anything for me to sign off, but we’re changing that.”
The newly-appointed police chief claimed there was no “formal review process” that went up the chain of command for “police-involved shootings.” Today, the department had “instituted what is going to be a more formalized process that will review each police shooting.”
It was an unacceptable answer to the question asked by the reporter, who followed up, “You saw the video. You saw the reports. You saw they were at odds. Why didn’t you do something?”
To which, Escalante replied that what he approved was not part of the criminal investigation into Van Dyke. It apparently only assessed the “use of force” by Van Dyke. All the accounts from Van Dyke and officers went to IPRA, which could assess the credibility of officers’ statements.
Escalante seemed to think he deserved credit for not trying to get the police officers’ accounts to match the video. He contended the disparity enabled the State’s Attorney’s Office to charge Van Dyke with murder.
On Friday, December 4, official police reports from the McDonald case were released late in the evening. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported, they showed, “At least six officers, including the cop who shot McDonald — Officer Jason Van Dyke — spun tales blatantly at odds with what the dashcam video showed. In their telling, McDonald was violently aggressive, lunging at Van Dyke while waving a knife and struggling even after being shot. In fact, McDonald had turned away from the officers, and he dropped like a stone when he was shot.”
Escalante later attempted to defend the police department by suggesting his predecessor, Garry McCarthy, had done all that he could do when he assigned Van Dyke to administrative duties. He then left with Emanuel as press shouted questions, “Where are the other officers?” and, “What happened to the other officers involved?”
Emanuel was asked to explain why the city had approved a $5 million settlement with the McDonald family less than 30 days after this Department of Detectives report was signed off on by Escalante. “If Van Dyke was cleared, why would you agree to pay $5 million unless you knew something else?”
The mayor viewed the timeline of events differently. On February 27, he said the McDonald family approached the city. An agreement was reached in principle in late March.
Emanuel was asked to confront a key systemic problem in the city, which is the lack of accountability and discipline for officers involved in police misconduct—whether it be murder or some much less severe form of violence. There are three entities—the Chicago Police Department’s Internal Affairs, IPRA, and a police board, which is supposed to handle discipline and oversight.
“You have three entities all supposed to be doing something, and it’s not happening,” Emanuel conceded.
However, it was extraordinarily difficult for reporters to push Emanuel to confront this clear reality. In order to provoke a response that hinted at the level of corruption in the city, a reporter had to repeat a question about whether more should be done to punish officers, who get their stories straight and lie about shootings.
According to the Better Government Association, 300 people were shot by Chicago police between 2010 and 2014. Seventy of those individuals were killed. More people were killed by police in Chicago than any of the other largest cities in the United States.
IPRA has investigated around 400 “civilian shootings by officers” and only found three to be “unjustified.” (One IPRA investigator was fired this year when he refused to change his findings in relation to reviews of multiple shootings).
The city of Chicago’s own “police disciplinary information,” which the Invisible Institute’s Citizen Police Data Project obtained, shows there were 28,567 allegations of misconduct filed against Chicago police officers between March 2011 and September 2015. Around 98 percent of complaints resulted in zero discipline.
This is a result of the culture of corruption in the police department and the city of Chicago, a part of the code of silence. The newly-appointed police chief previously upheld this code by not challenging officers involved and complicit in the shooting of McDonald.
Escalante can claim he played no role in undermining justice, but by approving police accounts filled with lies, he left it in the hands of IPRA to challenge the leadership of the police department, something which never happened. In fact, Van Dyke would not have been charged with murder if activists in Chicago had not kept up grassroots pressure and if journalist Brandon Smith had not submitted a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the release of video of McDonald being shot 16 times.