Seeking the first official discipline in the 22 months since a Chicago police officer shot Laquan McDonald 16 times on video, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson on Tuesday moved to fire four patrol officers and a sergeant he accused of lying about the shooting.
Though the October 2014 shooting led to aftershocks that have shaken the Police Department from top to bottom, the city’s first move for formal discipline focuses largely on street officers.
The charges Johnson filed with the Chicago Police Board seek the dismissal of Officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot McDonald and is also charged criminally with first-degree murder, as well as four others who gave or approved accounts that were contradicted by footage of the shooting, suggesting an attempted cover-up.
Along with Van Dyke, the department is seeking to fire officers Janet Mondragon, Daphne Sebastian and Ricardo Viramontes. Sgt. Stephen Franko is the only officer with a rank above police officer to face potential firing.
It remains unclear whether any higher-ranking current or former police could face formal consequences or criticism from the city’s disciplinary investigation. Several top officers involved in the aftermath of the shooting resigned or retired during the city’s halting, contradictory response to McDonald’s death.
The officers charged administratively face an initial hearing at the police board Sept. 19. None of them could be reached for comment.
The move to fire the officers follows a report from Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, who had recommended firing 10 officers in all. Of those 10, three have retired in the last two weeks, according to department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, who said he could not give the ranks or names of the officers who have left the department.
A fourth resigned Tuesday, and a source identified that officer as Van Dyke’s partner, Joseph Walsh.
As to another officer — Dora Fontaine — Johnson disagreed with the recommendation to fire her, as he felt the evidence was insufficient, according to a statement from the department. It was unclear Tuesday how any potential disciplinary case against her might proceed, but police board members sometimes rule on disputes between city agencies over officer punishment.
A spokeswoman for Ferguson declined to comment on whether his office is investigating other officers or might call for more discipline.
The move to fire the officers doesn’t promise a quick end to the scandal stemming from the department’s response to McDonald’s shooting. Cases can remain before the police board for months, and its rulings are not always the final word, as officers commonly challenge the board’s firings in court.
The proposed discipline represents the latest consequence of a shooting that has driven political upheaval and changes to policing in the city.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration worked for months to avoid releasing the video of McDonald’s shooting, but a judge forced its release last November. The footage of the white Van Dyke shooting the African-American teenager repeatedly as he lay motionless on the pavement sparked heated protests fueled by long-held grievances with the police among many black Chicagoans.
Emanuel forced out Superintendent Garry McCarthy shortly after the video’s release, and as the scandal deepened, the U.S. Justice Department announced an investigation into whether Chicago police have systematically violated citizens’ rights. Later, Emanuel announced changes designed to get in front of reforms federal authorities could seek.
The widely distrusted city agency that usually investigates police shootings — the Independent Police Review Authority — referred the inquiry to Ferguson’s office.
The conduct of the officers who face potential firing is also under scrutiny from a special Cook County prosecutor appointed to determine whether their actions warrant further criminal charges. The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago had also been investigating the shooting.
Beyond the moves to fire officers, several high-ranking officers who were involved in the McDonald case have retired recently. David McNaughton, the deputy chief who ruled Van Dyke’s shooting complied with department policy, retired in recent weeks. Also, Lt. Anthony Wojcik, who was involved in the department’s investigation into the shooting, retired in May. The lead investigator, David March, has also retired, sources said.
No official or records have publicly linked those officers to the investigation into the McDonald case.
The charges filed Tuesday focused largely on alleged dishonesty but varied on specifics among the officers. All are alleged, though, to have violated Rule 14, which bars the making of false reports.
Van Dyke stated in reports that he fired his weapon in fear for his life when McDonald advanced on him with a knife. On the video, however, Van Dyke can be seen jumping from his car and opening fire within seconds as McDonald appears to walk away from him.
Sebastian and Mondragon reported that Van Dyke and Walsh repeatedly ordered McDonald to drop the knife. The teen ignored them as he waved a blade while approaching the two officers, according to their reports.
Viramontes stated that McDonald turned toward Van Dyke and Walsh after Van Dyke told the teen to drop the knife. After Van Dyke shot McDonald, the teen fell to the street but continued to move, trying to get back up with the knife, according to Viramontes’ account in the reports.
The department charged Franko with, among other things, signing off on Van Dyke’s allegedly false reports on the incident.
Hours after the shooting, McNaughton, the incident commander that night, made a preliminary determination that the shooting complied with Police Department policy, records show. In December 2014, the department officially recorded the shooting as a justifiable homicide.
The footage released late last year came mostly without audio, and several of the officers are accused of failing to properly use their in-car video and audio systems.
Dean Angelo Sr., president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, said Tuesday he had not seen the charges, but he maintained that the video of McDonald’s shooting should have been publicly withheld until the investigations into the shooting were completed.
“You’ve got a whole population out there coast to coast, … people have seen a two-dimensional silent movie of this incident, and they’ve all got an opinion,” he said.
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