Chicago cop in Laquan McDonald video tied to another fatal OIS
The officer copied the work of other officers on the scene, which made his official report match theirs
By David Heinzmann
CHICAGO — The Chicago police officer charged with murder in the shooting of a black teen also played a role in the alleged cover-up of another fatal police shooting 10 years ago, according to court records in an ongoing civil lawsuit against the city.
Officer Jason Van Dyke admitted as part of that civil case that he copied the work of other officers on the scene, which made his official report match theirs, without conducting his own interviews of witnesses to the controversial 2005 shooting of Emmanuel Lopez.
While his role in that case was relatively minor, it looms larger now as the Lopez family lawsuit heads to trial in February over allegations that Chicago police shot the 23-year-old janitor 16 times without justification and then concocted a story that they were acting in self-defense because Lopez tried to run over an officer with his car.
Van Dyke's admission about his report in a 2008 deposition comes to light as he stands accused of murder in the October 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald, 17, who was gunned down as he jogged along a Southwest Side street several feet from police officers who had responded to calls that he was breaking into cars. Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times, with most of the shots coming after the teen collapsed to the street.
Police at first contended that McDonald threatened officers with a knife, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel fought for months to withhold the police video of the shooting until a judge ordered its release last week. The video, showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald as he walked past officers, put Chicago front and center in a national debate over police misconduct against minorities.
Van Dyke's actions in McDonald's death, his emerging role in the Lopez shooting and more than a dozen allegations of misconduct filed against him over the years that never resulted in discipline paint a vivid picture of what critics contend is a decadeslong refusal by city officials to properly police their own department.
In addition to community activists, politicians and police experts, many of those critics are lawyers who have brought dozens of misconduct and wrongful death cases against Chicago in recent years, resulting in payouts that total hundreds of millions of dollars.
Van Dyke's actions "show the effort the Chicago Police Department will go to in order to cover up police misconduct," said the Lopez family's lawyer, Terry Ekl, who has successfully sued the department multiple times in recent years. "They were trying to keep a lid on how this shooting took place and to concoct a defense for shooting an unarmed guy 16 times."
Emanuel's press staff did not return calls for comment.
Multiple aspects of the official police narrative of the September 2005 shooting of Lopez have been challenged in the Cook County lawsuit accusing the Police Department of excessive force and lying to cover up officers' conduct.
Lopez was driving to his overnight shift as a janitor in a sausage factory when he led police on a brief chase after a hit-and-run fender bender. Police said he used his Honda Civic to partly run over one of the officers as he was trying to escape.
Van Dyke admitted under oath in 2008 that he was one of the first officers to reach the scene after the shooting. He was not investigating whether the shooting was justified. Rather, he was assigned to write the "general offense case report," which contains basic information of people involved in the incident as well as a narrative of the event.
But instead of writing his own narrative of the incident, he conducted no interviews and waited for detectives to hand him a typed narrative from their report, which he inserted verbatim into his own paperwork, according to his deposition.
His police report did not attribute the narrative to the detectives, and under questioning by Ekl, Van Dyke acknowledged that he did not know where the detectives had gotten their version of events.
Van Dyke testified in the deposition that despite listing the officers involved in the shooting as witnesses on his report, he didn't speak to any of them. When asked why he did not, he replied, "I don't know."
When asked who provided the information in his report, Van Dyke replied: "One of the detectives" who was investigating the shooting but said he didn't know which one.
Pressed on whether he understood where the detectives got their information, he said he didn't ask.
"No, because we were doing the — I'm not the investigator on this. I'm just documenting what happened. I think it was just easier to do it that way instead of me asking, asking, asking, and him answering, answering, answering."
Asked whether he knew if the detectives had interviewed the officers involved in the shooting, Van Dyke replied, "No, no, it's out of my pay grade. I don't question other officers."
Asked what he did with the detectives' document after preparing his report, Van Dyke responded, "Threw it in the garbage." Van Dyke also testified that the Lopez shooting was the only time in his career that a detective had ever given him a typed summary of events to include in one of his case reports.
A police procedure expert said Van Dyke's admission in the case undermines the credibility of his report and suggests an effort among officers to get their stories straight.
In cases of potential police misconduct, officers too often collude to produce a single version of events, said Joseph Pollini, a former New York Police Department lieutenant commander who now teaches police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"You shouldn't go compare it to everybody else's reports to make sure it's the same," Pollini said. "That's not best practices. But it is a common practice."
Van Dyke's questionable report writing came in one of the most bizarrely convoluted police shooting cases in memory. Police, prosecutors and the Independent Police Review Authority have all cleared the officers involved in the shooting.
Questions in the case have always focused on two of the officers involved — Brian Rovano, who police contended was pinned under Lopez's car, and Pedro Solis, the off-duty officer who initiated the pursuit of Lopez allegedly after seeing him driving erratically on Kedzie Avenue.
Solis, who fired 11 of the 16 shots that struck Lopez, admitted in his own 2008 deposition that he had been drinking before the incident. Neither the detectives' report nor Van Dyke's report made any mention of the officer consuming alcohol.
Rovano's deposition, also taken in 2008, revealed another inconsistency with the original police version of how the shooting unfolded. Detectives wrote in a supplemental report weeks after the shooting that the officers opened fire on Lopez because Rovano was pinned under the front bumper of the car and was dragged about 10 feet.
But Rovano acknowledged under oath that he was not dragged by Lopez's car and that the Honda moved a maximum of 4 or 5 feet after it bumped into him.
In the report he filed, Van Dyke wrote that Rovano was "pinned under the front of the offender's vehicle."
Another officer involved in the shooting with Rovano, Gabriella Wurm, testified in a deposition that the "lower half of his body" was under the car. She testified that when the shooting was over, Rovano "scooted back" and she helped him up.
Rovano testified in his deposition that he fired shots from his position pinned under the front of the car. But the autopsy showed the only bullet from his gun that struck Lopez entered his back on a downward angle.
The plaintiff's ballistics expert claimed that Rovano was actually on his feet to the side of the driver's side door when he fired his gun. In response, the city claimed Rovano was lying on the ground off to the side of the car with his legs on either side of the front wheel.
Cook County prosecutors opened an investigation and eventually sided with police, positing that a ricochet may have caused the circuitous route of Rovano's shot.
The family's lawyer, Ekl, and the city have sparred over numerous claims in the police reports. Most notably, the police claimed that the front tire was turning on Rovano's leg. They claimed his pants were marked with tire prints from the car.
However, a retired FBI expert hired by the Lopez family wrote a report challenging the police contention. The expert alleged the prints were made by someone hand-rolling an unmounted tire over a pair of empty pants laid flat.
Van Dyke and the on-duty officers involved in the Lopez shooting were all members of the targeted response unit, a uniformed division created in 2003 to saturate high-violence areas of the city to quell shootings. McCarthy disbanded the unit shortly after arriving in 2011.
Pollini, the former NYPD official, questioned the propriety of allowing officers from the same unit to prepare a report on an officer-involved shooting.
"It would be sort of a conflict of interest," he said.
Pollini, who sometimes provides expert witness testimony in lawsuits but is not involved in this case, said Van Dyke's testimony is problematic both procedurally and as a matter of liability.
"If we see something like that in the deposition ... I'm going to go after it. In this particular case ... you're not really supposed to do a report that way. You're supposed to do it based on what you saw," he said. "It's something that would draw your attention. How could it be exactly the same? Did they concoct this thing together?"
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