Sixteen Shots

Chicago police have told their version of how 17-year-old black teen Laquan McDonald died. The autopsy tells a different story.

How could an incident that began with the responding officers assessing the situation and deciding they needed a Taser end a few minutes later with 16 bullets striking Laquan McDonald?

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An autopsy tells a story. The genre is mystery: a narrative set in motion by a corpse. The pathologist-narrator investigates the cause of death in precise, descriptive prose that ultimately allows the dead to testify about what happened to them. In the case of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black youth killed by Chicago police on Oct. 20, 2014, the autopsy raises questions not only about how he died, but about how the Chicago Police Department has handled the case since. While it does not provide all the details of what transpired that night, the autopsy makes one thing clear: The account of the incident given by the police cannot be true.

Here is what police at the scene told reporters: At around 9:45 p.m., a squad car responded to a call that someone was trying to break into cars in an industrial area on the southwest side of Chicago. The officers found a boy, Laquan McDonald, standing in the street with a knife. They observed him stabbing the tires of a vehicle. When they ordered him to drop the knife, he ignored them and walked away, down the street.

Pat Camden, a longtime Chicago Police Department press spokesman who now performs that function for the police union, later described McDonald as having had “a strange gaze about him … he’s got a 100-yard stare … he’s staring blankly.”

The responding officers didn’t have a Taser. Waiting for one to arrive, they followed McDonald in their vehicle. A second squad car arrived. McDonald again refused to drop the knife. The police tried to use the two vehicles to box him in against a construction fence on Pulaski Road. He punctured a tire and damaged the front windshield of one of the police cars. Officers got out of their vehicles. McDonald lunged at them with the knife. One of the officers shot him in the chest. At 10:42 p.m., he was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

“The officers are responding to somebody with a knife in a crazed condition, who stabs out tires on a vehicle and tires on a squad car,” Camden said at the scene. “You obviously aren’t going to sit down and have a cup of coffee with them. He is a very serious threat to the officers, and he leaves them no choice at that point but to defend themselves.”

The Chicago press dutifully reported the police account of the incident. The reporter for the local NBC station called it “a clear-cut case of self-defense.” It was also reported that the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the city agency charged with investigating police shootings, would conduct an investigation, as it does in the case of every “police-involved shooting.”

In its broad outlines, this is a familiar Chicago story: A black American is shot by a Chicago police officer. A police source says the shooting was justified. IPRA announces it is investigating. Then silence. After a year or two, IPRA issues a report confirming that the shooting was indeed justified.

The statistics are stunning. According to IPRA reports, Chicago police officers shoot, on average, several residents a month. Roughly 75 percent of those shot are black. Civil rights lawyers and investigative journalists I’ve talked to who have covered the Chicago police for decades cannot remember the last time criminal charges were brought against a Chicago police officer for a shooting while on duty.

Sometimes before the story of a police shooting evaporates into silence, we briefly hear the voice of a family member or friend trying to find words to describe who the victim was or questioning the shooting. Not so in the case of Laquan McDonald. A ward of the state, he appears not to have left much of a trace in the world. At any rate, there was no one to speak for him during the brief moment of media attention occasioned by his death.

The press coverage did, however, contain a couple of particulars that didn’t meld with the police narrative. A witness, Alma Benitez, was quoted as saying that the shooting was unnecessary, because a number of officers were present and they had control of the situation.

“It was super exaggerated,” she said. “You didn’t need that many cops to begin with. They didn’t need to shoot him. They didn’t. They basically had him face-to-face. There was no purpose why they had to shoot him.”

The other detail at odds with the police narrative—mentioned in passing in a couple of news reports without comment—was that the Cook County Medical Examiner had ruled that McDonald died of “multiple gunshot wounds,” not the chest wound that the CPD had described.

The question the press didn’t ask—how many gunshot wounds are covered by the word “multiple”?—has now been definitively answered by the recently finalized autopsy report, which I have obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request: Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times.

Before mapping each of the 16 gunshot wounds in minute detail, the report describes Laquan McDonald. Six feet tall and 180 pounds, he had been wearing blue jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt. He had dreadlocks, the longest of which was five inches. He was, before his encounter with the police, in good health. A tattoo on his upper right arm read “Quan.” Another on the back of his right hand read “Good Son.” And on the back of his left hand were a pair of dice and “YOLO”—the acronym for “you only live once.”

The description of each of the gunshot wounds is exhaustive, noting where the bullet entered the body, the damage it did to tissue and bone, where it exited the body, and its direction. The numbering of the wounds in the report is arbitrary; it is “without regard to sequence or severity.” Here is a summary:

1. Gunshot wound of the left scalp. (Directionality cannot be determined.)

2. Gunshot wound of the neck. (The direction is left to right, slightly front to back and slightly downward.)

3. Gunshot wound of the left chest. (The direction is front to back, right to left and downward.)

4. Gunshot wound of the right chest. (The direction is front to back, left to right and slightly downward.)

5. Gunshot wound of the left elbow. (The direction is left to right, back to front and slightly upward.)

6. Gunshot wound of the right upper arm. (The direction is back to front, downward and slightly left to right.)

7. Gunshot wound of the left forearm. (The direction is back to front, slightly right to left and slightly downward.)

8. Gunshot wound of the lateral right upper leg. (The direction is right to left, downward and slightly front to back.)

9. Gunshot wound of the left upper back. (The direction is right to left and downward with no significant forward or backward deviation.)

10. Gunshot wound of the left elbow. (The direction is left to right and downward with no significant forward or backward deviation.)

11. Gunshot wound of the posterior right upper arm. (The direction is right to left, downward and slightly front to back.)

12. Gunshot wound of the right arm. (The direction is back to front and upward with no significant lateral deviation.)

13. Gunshot wound of the right forearm. (The direction is upward and slightly back to front with no significant lateral deviation.)

14. Gunshot wound of the right hand. (The direction is slightly left to right and slightly upward with no significant forward or backward deviation.)

15. Gunshot wound of the right lower back. (The direction is back to front, right to left and upward.)

16. Gunshot wound of the right upper leg. (The direction is left to right and front to back with no significant vertical deviation.)

How could an incident that began with the responding officers assessing the situation and deciding they needed a Taser end a few minutes later with 16 bullets ripping through Laquan McDonald’s body from different directions? Did more than one officer fire? That might explain the bullets entering from different directions. Or did a single officer empty a full magazine? Perhaps McDonald was rolling around on the ground, in which case bullets fired from a single position might have entered his body from different directions.

Whatever happened, it’s very difficult to square the police narrative with the facts established by the silent testimony of Laquan McDonald’s corpse.

And there is more: I recently spoke with a witness, who asked that I not use his name for fear of police reprisals and who has also reported his story to IPRA. He said he came upon the unfolding drama at the moment when McDonald was boxed in by police cars and the construction fence. From this point forward, his version of events diverges sharply from that of the police.

From this witness’s perspective, McDonald didn’t pose an immediate threat to anyone, and he had nowhere to run. Several officers got out of their squad cars, he says. McDonald was shying away from the police rather than moving toward them, according to this witness, when a white male officer shot him. He fell to the ground. There was a pause. Then the officer fired again and again and again. The witness counted, he thought, six more shots, but he was uncertain whether other officers were also firing. Almost immediately, a number of police cars arrived on the scene, blocking the witness’s view. The police didn’t interview him or take his name.

Although the witness is adamant that McDonald was moving away from the police and not lunging toward them, let’s assume the officer’s assessment of risk was correct. There is a rule of thumb in law enforcement known as the “21-foot rule”—the distance an attacker with a knife can cover before his intended target, armed with a holstered sidearm, can reasonably be expected to get off an accurate shot. Perhaps that justified the first—or even the first few—shots, but what possible justification could there be for the barrage of bullets that followed?

The police department and the city have the means to answer these questions. A source close to the case confirmed to me that the dashboard camera in one of the squad cars on the scene captured the incident. (CPD policy requires officers to activate their dashboard cameras when in pursuit.) And it’s clear from both the police narrative and the witness account that at least one of the squad cars on the scene had a clear perspective on the sequence of events. I have reached out to the Chicago Police Department several times for comment on the autopsy, the witness testimony, and the video, but have not heard back.

In December, Professor Craig Futterman of the University of Chicago Law School and I publicly called on the city to release all video footage of the incident. It has not done so. Nor has it addressed questions we have raised about the incident. Now the autopsy report has made those questions even more urgent.

The reality is that in a police force the size of Chicago’s, no matter how well trained and supervised, bad things will sometimes happen. The critical question is how the institution responds when they do.

Last November, in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy spoke of the importance of keeping the public informed after high-profile incidents such as police shootings. He said he didn’t want the department to “be defensive” when such incidents occur. “Transparency,” he said, “is part of our legitimacy.”

Hence the importance of releasing the video footage of the Laquan McDonald shooting. Refusing to do so, in view of the questions raised by the autopsy report, can only damage the department’s legitimacy.

The decision of whether or not to release the video ultimately rests with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is currently in the midst of a re-election campaign. His administration has taken several significant steps toward establishing a credible regime of police accountability. Among them is the transparency policy it adopted following a 2014 Illinois Appellate Court decision holding that documents relating to closed investigations of police misconduct are public information. It would be a logical extension of that policy to include open as well as closed cases, to the extent timely information can be made public without compromising ongoing investigations.        

Recently, the mayor touched, in another context, on what is at stake. In connection with the announcement of a pilot program in which officers in one of the city’s police districts will be outfitted with body cameras, he spoke of the damage to community-police relations done by the history of police abuses, and expressed the hope that body cameras will help rebuild “a foundation of trust” between residents and the police.

Sparked by events in Ferguson, Missouri, an extraordinary series of protests and conversations across the nation have brought us to something akin to a truth and reconciliation moment with respect to patterns of police abuse and impunity in minority communities. At the local level, this dynamic is complex and volatile , as the recent events in New York have illustrated. Statesmanship will be required on all sides, if we are to find a path forward that publicly acknowledges longstanding patterns of human rights violations, while building and maintaining the relationships that will be required, incrementally and over time, to effectively address those harms.

The McDonald footage will come out, but a great deal turns on how it comes out. Will the city be forced to release it in a way that deepens the crisis of public confidence in law enforcement, or will it be released in a way that helps restore the “foundation of trust” between residents and police on which effective law enforcement depends? If the city resists releasing the video until legally compelled to do so, outrage at what it depicts will be compounded by outrage that the city knew its contents (and the autopsy results) in the immediate aftermath of the incident yet withheld that information from the public.

The fate of Laquan McDonald—a citizen of Chicago so marginalized he was all but invisible until the moment of his death—has thus become entwined with that of Mayor Emanuel. It presents his administration with a defining moment.