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No more indictments against cops in handling of Laquan McDonald shooting

A Cook County special grand jury has been disbanded without charging any additional Chicago police officers, including department higher-ups, for their handling of Laquan McDonald’s fatal shooting by an officer.

At a hearing Tuesday at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said the grand jury that convened to look into the controversial shooting has completed its investigation.

That means no other officers — including higher-ups who signed off on allegedly false reports of the shooting — will be indicted.

The only indictment brought by the special grand jury charged just lower-level cops — a detective and two patrol officers — stopping short of criminally charging department higher-ups in the alleged cover-up, even though several had been recommended for firing by the city inspector general’s office for their actions.

A statement by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law said the inability to indict supervisors involved in the alleged cover-up showed the weaknesses of the criminal justice system in rooting out what it called a “culture of corruption” and underscored the need for a court decree overhauling the Police Department’s operations.

Outside the courtroom, activist Will Calloway, whose efforts helped make public the video of McDonald’s shooting, also expressed disappointment. More officers, including higher-ranking department officials, should be charged, he said.

“The other officers lied, too, on their police reports,” Calloway said. “That’s not justice for Laquan.”

The court-ordered release in 2015 of video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting McDonald 16 times a year earlier sparked widespread protests, the firing of Chicago’s police superintendent and a damning report of police practices by the U.S. Department of Justice. Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges.

Holmes, a former Cook County judge, was appointed a special prosecutor in July 2016 after a coalition of about 25 community groups, prominent attorneys and a member of McDonald’s family formally sought the appointment to investigate not only McDonald’s shooting but also the officers at the scene. The special grand jury was ordered impaneled in October 2016.

“At this point, your investigation ... has concluded?” Judge LeRoy K. Martin Jr., who appointed Holmes as special prosecutor, asked her Tuesday in court. “No need for a special grand jury to look any further into this matter?”

Holmes acknowledged that was correct.

Later, Holmes’ office issued a statement noting that the special grand jury continued its investigation after three officers had been indicted in June. The grand jury examined “the conduct of other individuals, but concluded its inquiry without returning any further indictments,” the statement said.

Her office will now continue its prosecution of the three officers, all of whom have pleaded not guilty.

David March, the lead detective in the shooting’s probe; Joseph Walsh, Van Dyke’s partner on the night of the shooting; and Thomas Gaffney, among the first officers on the scene, were charged with official misconduct, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

The charges allege that the three officers, together with Van Dyke himself, lied to exaggerate the threat posed by 17-year-old McDonald, who had PCP in his system and had damaged a police car while armed with a knife. The video showed the white officer shooting McDonald as the black teen walked away from police. Van Dyke and other officers had alleged that McDonald lunged at him with the knife.

March and Walsh left the Police Department after city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson recommended their firing following his investigation of the shooting. Gaffney remains with the department but was stripped of police powers and placed on paid desk duty.

The city has declined to make Ferguson’s report public, but thousands of pages of records of that probe obtained by the Chicago Tribune months ago raise questions about police Superintendent Eddie Johnson’s response to the inspector general’s findings against top command officers.

The documents revealed that Ferguson recommended firing Chief of Detectives Eugene Roy and Deputy Chief David McNaughton in addition to numerous lower-ranking officers.

Roy, who had supervised the department’s investigation into McDonald’s shooting, drew withering criticism from Ferguson’s office. The inspector general placed blame for the detectives’ allegedly false narratives on Roy, but Roy told investigators that responsibility for the reports fell largely to his subordinates.

In recommending that McNaughton be fired, the inspector general alleged that he had approved false police reports submitted by Van Dyke, Walsh and a third officer and revised a police news release to falsely state that McDonald was shot after he “continued to approach” the officers.

But Johnson never acted on the recommendations. Instead, Roy quietly stepped down as he neared the mandatory age for retirement. McNaughton, the highest-ranking officer at the scene of McDonald’s shooting, also has since retired.

The records of Ferguson’s investigation also detailed a meeting at police headquarters among the top brass about 10 days after the McDonald shooting. Among those at the meeting was Johnson, then a deputy chief who was later promoted to superintendent after then-Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired days after the video’s release.

Lt. Osvaldo Valdez, who attended the meeting, later told the inspector general’s office that “everyone agreed that Officer Van Dyke used the force necessary to eliminate the threat.”

Through a spokesman, Johnson has disputed that characterization of the meeting but said little more in public about the matter since it was reported by the Tribune in December.

In his interviews with the inspector general’s office, March said that police brass shifted its stance on the shooting after the video was released and that no one had “voiced any reservations or concerns” to him at the time of his investigation.

“I was informed the entire command staff concurred with the findings and conclusions of my investigation,” he told investigators. He also defended his work and the accuracy of the statements of other officers, as well as McDonald’s shooting.

“Is it really being suggested that the police should have done nothing and permitted Laquan McDonald to continue on his way and not stop him?” March asked.

The indictment alleged that March, Walsh and Gaffney each made false police reports, ignored contrary evidence and obstructed justice “to shield” Van Dyke from criminal investigation and prosecution.

The charges alleged the officers coordinated their efforts with Van Dyke and others, writing virtually identical reports to make it appear that Van Dyke’s actions were justified.

Despite what the video captured, one report authored by Walsh stated the video “was viewed and found to be consistent with the accounts of all the witnesses,” the indictment charged.

The officers also failed to interview at least three witnesses to the shooting whose accounts differed from those of officers, according to the charges. In addition, the indictment alleged the officers deleted or failed to preserve communications with one another.

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @crepeau

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