CHICAGO — Somewhere in the Cook County Jail, Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago police officer, is waiting to learn how long he will spend in prison for killing Laquan McDonald, a black teenager. But even after the officer’s second-degree murder conviction last week, this city is still waiting for other verdicts.
Widespread outrage over Laquan’s death was never just about the 16 bullets Officer Van Dyke fired into him that night. The protests, political upheaval and promises of reform were also motivated by a yearlong effort to keep a video of the shooting out of public view and by what many people saw as a top-to-bottom cover-up.
Three other Chicago police officers — David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney — never fired a shot the night of Laquan’s death, but they stand charged with lying about the shooting and conspiring to keep Officer Van Dyke out of trouble. Their cases are seen as a rare and crucial test of a so-called code of silence that is often said to fester within police departments.
“This has been the routine of the Chicago Police Department,” said William Calloway, an activist who pressed for the release of the McDonald video in 2015 as city officials resisted. “We have to make an example of these officers.”
On Oct. 20, 2014, the night Laquan died, Officer Gaffney and several other officers had trailed the teenager for blocks. Those officers requested the help of a colleague with a Taser and followed Laquan from a distance, even as he popped the tire of a police cruiser with a three-inch pocketknife he was carrying and slashed at the vehicle’s windshield. Laquan was walking away from the officers when Officer Van Dyke arrived and started shooting. The gunshots continued as Laquan crumpled onto the ground.
Almost immediately after the gunfire stopped, prosecutors say, a cover-up began.
“As part of the conspiracy,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing unsealed last week, officers “failed to report or correct false information in official police reports” and “concealed the true facts of the events surrounding the killing of Laquan McDonald.”
At the scene, the officers failed to interview people who witnessed the shooting, the prosecutors said. Later that night, the officers huddled at the police station and then gave dubious accounts of the shooting that were nearly identical. A story emerged, contradicted by video, of Laquan trying to stab three officers and then trying to get up from the ground after being pummeled by bullets.
Days later, a sergeant assigned to the case sent an email defending Officer Van Dyke and criticizing those who questioned his actions. He said the “offender chose his fate” and that it was “possibly suicide by police.”
“Officer did exactly what he was trained to do,” the unnamed sergeant, who is not charged with a crime, wrote in an email released by prosecutors. “We should be applauding him, not second-guessing him.”
Nine other officers were at the scene when Officer Van Dyke shot Laquan, and police officials moved to fire seven officers who gave questionable accounts of the shooting. Grand jurors declined to indict other officers.
In 2014, Laquan’s death attracted little attention, even as police shootings in cities such as Ferguson, Mo., and Milwaukee led to large protests. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected to a second term and the City Council agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to Laquan’s family even before a lawsuit was filed. But as months passed, word spread of a damning dashboard camera video that was being withheld by city officials, who cited an ongoing criminal investigation for their secrecy.
In the weeks that followed, protesters marched repeatedly through the city chanting “16 shots and a cover-up!” The police superintendent was fired. Rules for when officers can shoot were tightened. Mr. Emanuel, who resisted calls to quit but recently decided not to seek another term, acknowledged a “code of silence” among officers.
That phrase came up again when Patricia Brown Holmes, a special prosecutor, announced conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice charges last year against Officers Gaffney, March and Walsh. Mr. March, the detective who investigated the shooting, and Mr. Walsh, Officer Van Dyke’s partner that night, resigned from the Police Department while under investigation.
“These defendants lied about what occurred during a police-involved shooting in order to prevent independent criminal investigators from learning the truth,” Ms. Brown Holmes said at the time. “The indictment makes clear that it is unacceptable to obey an unofficial code of silence.”
Police union leaders have defended the three officers and suggested that their prosecution was politically motivated. The men have pleaded not guilty and will have their case decided by a judge, not a jury, in a trial scheduled to start Nov. 26. A court order prevents lawyers involved in the case from speaking publicly about the charges in detail.
“These charges are, in our minds, baseless. Our officers are being made the scapegoats,” said Kevin Graham, the police union president, after the charges were announced. “How the special prosecutor can construe a ‘code of silence’ theory defies belief.”
But to some who have protested Laquan’s death for years, the pending charges are seen as an indictment of the code of silence itself, an unwritten policy that they say has long undermined relations between police officers and Chicagoans.
“They are just as guilty as Jason Van Dyke, if not worse,” said the Rev. Ira Acree, a West Side minister and an outspoken critic of the Police Department. “Because they wanted to cover up a crime and they took an oath to protect and serve.”