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Journalist Yana Kunichoff Discusses ‘Fraternal Order of Propaganda’ in Chicago

In Chicago, there is a notorious individual, who is part of the city’s police union. He spreads disinformation to media by going to scenes immediately after police kill civilians and then fabricates narratives that benefit the officers involved. His name is Pat Camden.

Camden comes off as someone who is pretty proud of how he is able to manipulate and sway media into believing him. He does not like about relying on third-hand hearsay or admit that he has no idea what happened at scenes where officers shot and killed people. That is because for four years the local press never questioned his statements.

It was this way until the Laquan McDonald case made national news. But, for a number of years, the Chicago Police Department has relied on the FOP to help the department put out a narrative that undermines prosecutions against police.

Yana Kunichoff, an independent journalist who worked on a major cover story for the Chicago Reader titled, “How Chicago’s ‘Fraternal Order of Propaganda’ shapes the story of fatal police shootings,” joins the show. She discusses the FOP spokesperson at the center of scandal around the Chicago Police Department. She highlights how Camden manipulated the press and how the press failed to followup when Camden’s claims did not match witness statements on police shootings. She also describes how this helps protect police from prosecutions.

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Below is a transcript of the entire interview with Yana Kunichoff.

I was very pleased to think this is a very strong piece of journalism that looks at the FOP here in Chicago, and one of their spokespeople is Pat Camden. Before we get into who he is and the meat of your story, I thought it was really great that there were all these stands around the city and everyone around the Chicago picked up these weekly newspapers that had this incredible image on the front cover of it—the Fraternal Order of Propaganda—which I thought was just brilliantly subversive.

KUNICHOFF: Absolutely. If you look closely, we also tweaked some of the latin, and also there’s a finger covering the lips on the logo so there’s all kinds of little things there.

GOSZTOLA: Let’s get into it. Your entire story revolves around this spokesperson whose name is Pat Camden. So, go ahead and introduce him and maybe talk about what is very extraordinary what he has been doing here in Chicago after police shootings.

KUNICHOFF: Pat Camden is a real fixture on Chicago’s police scene. He worked for the Chicago Police Department as a police officer. Then, he was their press person for two decades. He’s kind of a big mainstay in the police department. But in 2011 he took on this role and that was to go and work for the Fraternal Order of Police as their spokesperson. So he came with all this institutional media knowledge and kind of jumped in and basically was at the scene of police-involved shootings in Chicago.

What he would do is you have reporters that are really hungry for information. After a police shooting, the police department isn’t giving anything out. And Pat Camden strides on to the scene, and he’s able to give a lot of details. He says that someone was thrown around like a rag doll. A police officer was thrown around like a rag doll. So, he plays the role of offering information to the media after a police-involved shooting but that information comes from a union spokesperson that talked to the police officers. He does that as the spokesperson for the police union.

GOSZTOLA: And he says that he’s making these statements—You quote him in the story. He says he is making these statements based on “preliminary facts.” Those are his words. “Preliminary facts” that immediately follow the incident. But it’s very clear as you push him that, in fact, he doesn’t know. He has no idea what’s happened at these scenes.

KUNICHOFF: That’s a really interesting aspect of it. I read almost every news story on a shooting from 2012 to 2015 in Chicago and never once is Pat Camden or if he does give disclaimers no one ever says he wasn’t sure what happened. Or, this information was secondhand. That’s what, I think, he’s said now since there has been a lot of drama around what his statements say. When he gave them initially, it seemed very much as if he’s collecting information on the scene and giving it out.

GOSZTOLA: It’s a strange thing where he thinks that facts are always subject to change, but in my mind, if they’re changing, then they’re not actually facts. Facts are concrete. They don’t change.

Something in particular that people throughout this country are familiar with is the shooting of Laquan McDonald. In particular with that case, I think that’s one of the most notorious cases when it comes to Pat Camden.

KUNICHOFF: I think the way to understand the way that Pat Camden seems to view facts is that they’re facts if a police officer said them and they were given to a union representative. But if anyone else said, they don’t seem to count the same way as facts.

One of the things that came out of that story is that he’s never doubted when a police officer said they feared for their life, which is the argument that is made to say that the shooting was within department policy. But he doesn’t believe when it’s later found that a gun was at the scene. He thinks that could be untrue and there could have been a gun earlier that was removed. You can see the way that the term facts is really fluid in his understanding.

GOSZTOLA: And so, what’s amazing to me is that the local press here in Chicago were taking his statements at face value, and you get into this in the story. There seems to be a part of pride on the part of Pat Camden that he’s able to do this. He talks about how he got the information about what he thought had happened at the Laquan McDonald crime scene, and he says, “I’ve never talked to the officer, period.” The officer is Jason Van Dyke, who is on trial for murder right now.

Camden says, “It was told to me after it was told to somebody else who was told by another person, and this was two hours after the incident…hearsay is basically what I’m putting out at that point.” He doesn’t seem to tell the people working on the story this because he’s embarrassed but it’s like, hey, I don’t hide this. This is what’s acceptable to press here in Chicago.

KUNICHOFF: The response especially to how everything fell apart around the whole Laquan McDonald shooting has been one of passing the buck. So, saying I was always transparent about my role and passing that on to media. And then, in terms of the media’s responsibility, in many ways Pat Camden is the perfect figure to give this disinformation because he had an official role with the police department before joining the FOP. He’s so accessible and I think that gave him this access to the media that was really unprecedented in ways.

KHALEK: It is really shocking with stories like this because it seems the media—no matter how many times it’s apparent that they’re being lied to by police—the police narrative gets to be the default.

KUNICHOFF: I think there’s very little thinking of these events beyond a he said, she said narrative. The reality then is that the social power of the police is completely unquestioned, and that’s then what you see printed. And then in a lot of these news reports, I know—and then in the Laquan McDonald reports also—they’ll mention witnesses, who say wait a minute. That’s absolutely not how this happened. But the level of reporting that is taken to followup on that in most cases just isn’t there at all. So I think there’s something of a bias in unquestionably accepting the police narrative even when there are other voices that might be explored to counter it.

GOSZTOLA: Now, let me ask you how this fits into the country because you talked to some people who have links various major police departments throughout the country and gained some insight into how normal it would be for the FOP to do this.

KUNICHOFF: It actually seems to be different from how police departments and the unions function around the country so Chicago seems to be a huge outlier in this. I’ll run through some of the reporters we talked to in other cities: in Baltimore, in Oakland, in New Orleans, in Milwaukee, in Miami, in Philadelphia, in Detroit, and Los Angeles, they said they haven’t seen anything like this. That their union doesn’t play this aggressive of a role in manipulating and changing the narrative.

KHALEK: That was a lot of cities you just listed off.

KUNICHOFF: Yeah, I mean, a lot of the major cities and a lot of these have also seen similar issues around police accountability and police shootings.

GOSZTOLA: What Pat Camden is doing is going out in front of a police shooting before we know anything and he’s laying a foundation that is basically going to make it difficult for the police officers to be prosecuted. And I think you get into this a little bit in the story because we can start to get into the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) here in Chicago and get into the ways in which the union does play a role in making sure that the city doesn’t prosecute officers.

KUNICHOFF: The initial narrative, both that comes out of the media and I think that the officers give out to the first responders on the scene, I think is really, really important. That then later sets a big precedent for how the Independent Police Review Authority, which is the agency that reviews police misconduct in Chicago, will go through the case.

So, even from the start, a union rep will come on a scene and talk to a police officer. It’s not clear from our reporting that that actually doesn’t happen around the same time that an IPRA investigator will get on the scene. So there might already be a narrative forming in those first few hours that then when the officer is interviewed can go a certain way—I should say that could then be used to argue the officer was within departmental policy on the shooting.

Other contract aspects of that are that the contract allows up to 48 hours before an officer is interviewed, but from the documents we saw in the Jamaal Moore case, which is a case of a young man, a 17 year-old that was shot by police in Chicago—The officer was interviewed a year after the shooting. So, first of all, the contract gives all this leeway before the officer even has to make an official statement. And then actually a Fraternal Order of Police representative can be in those meetings as well so throughout this they’re with an officer every single step of the way. Their only role is to protect and defend the police officers and then the question is if they don’t ever question that an officer has done anything wrong, what kind of protection is that?

GOSZTOLA: The other thing is that the now-fired police chief, Garry McCarthy, had talked about the union and how it’s difficult to hold accountable officers. But, to me, it would seem like a spin. I don’t know what you were uncovering when you reported on this story, but specifically, it seems like the inability or failure to prosecute officers is actually a plus. The fact that this would be barrier makes it easier on the police department.

KUNICHOFF: Yeah, I can’t imagine that it would be good for the police department if suddenly there were so many more officers, who were found to have committed misconduct. Again, McCarthy’s role is really interesting. In the Laquan McDonald shooting, he then had to come out and essentially apologize for Camden’s report being wrong, even though officially there’s no connection between the two. It’s kind of an open question about how to analyze the fact that until now—even now it hasn’t officially been released—But that the Chicago Police Department had no official policy for talking to the press and, therefore, for four years, was content to let the FOP spokesperson be the major voice in a lot of stories around police-involved shootings.

Even when that happens, their narrative, which depends also on an initial interview with the police officer involved, isn’t always that different. We weren’t able to go into that in this piece, but usually the narrative of the officer feared for his life runs through Chicago Police Department reports in a very similar way to the way it does through FOP statements.

GOSZTOLA: And then, my last question is just the family of these younger black men (typically), who have been a victim of these shootings. Or, anybody who has been a victim of these shootings really. They have to deal with these lies about their family members, which the news media is reporting. I just wanted you to address that before we wrap the interview.

KUNICHOFF: Absolutely. I’ve talked to quite a few people’s families, of people who have victims of police shootings, and I think it’s devastating because there’s this one moment in which their loved one’s life is written. They’re described as maybe, you know, if they have a criminal history that’s dredged up or they’re connected to things that are often never proven, and then there is no other opportunity for them to ever talk about what this person meant to them or question that narrative that goes out. That’s kind of it, and what I found is it’s really hurtful and leads to that unsettled emotional feeling. In many ways, I feel it hangs over Chicago and when dealing with these issues.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."