By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Chicago’s prominent Black leaders are praising the indictment of three current or former police officers, who on June 27, were charged with conspiring to cover up details to protect Officer Jason Van Dyke when he shot Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014.
After months of waiting, many cheered when Special Prosecutor Patricia Holmes announced the charges, renewing hope among activists whose faith was shaken by the recent acquittals of the police officers who killed Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher.
The three current or former officers—Det. David March, 58, and patrol officers Joseph Walsh, 48, and Thomas Gaffney, 43—were each charged with conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice.
The new charges magnify a case that’s keeping the Chicago police force in the national spotlight as activists sue to force the city to enter into a court-monitored agreement to oversee reforms in a department that, for years, has been accused of heavy-handed policing against minorities, mainly Blacks.
The indictment states the officers filed false police reports in the hours and days after the shooting “in an attempt to prevent or shape any criminal investigation.”
Holmes made the announcement during a news conference. She shared what many Black leaders have been saying for years about a police force that operates under a code of silence to protect officers who harass, arrest and shoot Black residents under suspicious circumstances.
The investigation into the alleged cover-up by other officers is still ongoing, but Holmes outlined some of her findings nearly one year after she was appointed to investigate the role of numerous officers who were at the scene when McDonald was brutally murdered.
At police headquarters on 35th and Michigan, Rev. Dr. Leon Finney of Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, led a press conference with handful of prominent Black leaders and activists one day after Holmes announced the indictment.
“We applaud her indictment and expect these officers to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” Finney said. “This is not an investigation or indictment of the entire Chicago Police Department. It is about the conduct of specific officers who were involved with the events surrounding the shooting death of Laquan McDonald.”
Black Lives Matter activist Kofi Ademola accepted the news with caution.
“We want to make it perfectly clear that this is no anomaly,” he said. “Chicago is going to be the epicenter of justice where these officers will be held accountable, these cops are convicted and our communities get invested in. It is important that we follow through with these three indictments because officers have a history of lying.”
Rev. Dr. Marshall Hatch of New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church said some of city’s police officers cannot be trusted.
“These are serious charges, and we certainly commend Special Prosecutor Holmes for her courage and her integrity. The question here is: Are our police officers capable of fabricating evidence and covering up a crime of one of their own? Many of us here today have been working on this issue for a long time. It’s illogical to expect the police to police the police.”
In the indictment, Holmes said March—the lead detective—along with Walsh and Gaffney made false police reports, ignored contrary evidence and obstructed justice “to shield” Van Dyke from criminal investigation and prosecution.
“The indictment makes clear that these defendants did more than merely obey an unofficial ‘code of silence.’ Rather, it alleges that they lied about what occurred to prevent independent criminal investigators from learning the truth,” Holmes said in a statement.
All three officers are scheduled to be arraigned July 10 on the three criminal counts.
The case against Van Dyke is slowly moving through the pre-trial phase. During a hearing on June 28, Van Dyke, for the first time, spoke since he was indicted, about his role in the case as he testified about his interaction with the other police officers after he shot McDonald.
Speaking in a soft voice, Van Dyke said he couldn’t remember certain details of the conversations he had with the officers. He was told that he would face disciplinary action for refusing to answer.
March and former Deputy Chief David McNaughton said Van Dyke didn’t do anything wrong after the shooting. They said McDonald lunged at the officers and Van Dyke with a knife, but a dashcam video that had been suppressed for a year contradicted their claim. It shows McDonald moving away from the officers before Van Dyke arrived on the scene and shot him 16 times.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and then-State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez kept the video under wraps until a Cook County judge ordered it released in November 2015.
March left the force after a City of Chicago Office of Inspector General report showed that he made numerous false statements and material omissions in his interview with police and the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police shootings. The report also stated that March told the Cook County medical examiner’s office that McDonald lunged at Van Dyke.
While the officers prepare for their arraignment, Van Dyke is still awaiting trial after being charged with six counts of first-degree murder. His case has dragged on through pre-trial hearings that began a year ago last March. The special prosecutor in that case charged Van Dyke with an additional 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.