The Chicago Police Board fired a sergeant and three officers Thursday night over the alleged cover-up of the murder of Laquan McDonald by a police officer.
The decision appeared to turn on the infamous police dashboard camera video of the fatal shooting that contradicted the officers’ police reports.
The nine-member board found that the officers exaggerated the threat posed by the 17-year-old McDonald in order to justify the actions of Officer Jason Van Dyke in shooting the teen 16 times. McDonald was high on PCP when he refused police commands to drop a knife while walking away from officers on a Southwest Side street in October 2014.
The board voted unanimously to fire Officers Ricardo Viramontes and Janet Mondragon as well as Sgt. Stephen Franko for several rules violations, most importantly making false statements. All but one board member voted to fire Officer Daphne Sebastian as well for bringing discredit to the department and preventing the department from achieving its goals, though the board held that she did not make a false statement.
The decision likely marks the final punishment to be meted out following two historic criminal trials that saw Van Dyke become the first Chicago police officer in half a century to be convicted of an on-duty murder and a judge clear three other officers — including Van Dyke’s partner — of criminal conspiracy charges in a controversial ruling in January. The officers can challenge their dismissals by filing lawsuits in Cook County Circuit Court.
Patrick Murray, first vice president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, slammed the board’s decision, saying the officers did nothing wrong.
“It is obvious that this Police Board has out-served its usefulness,” he said.
The video of McDonald’s shooting roiled the city after a Daley Center judge ordered its release in November 2015, more than a year after the teen’s death. The U.S. Department of Justice later issued a scathing report about Police Department inadequacies, paving the way for a federal consent decree mandating a series of reforms that will be overseen by a federal judge.
Largely on the strength of the video, Van Dyke was criminally charged with McDonald’s killing, while a separate special prosecutor indicted Van Dyke’s partner, Joseph Walsh; lead detective David March; and Officer Thomas Gaffney on charges they conspired to cover up for Van Dyke.
Meanwhile, a disciplinary investigation by city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office recommended that 11 officers in all — including Van Dyke, now serving a 6 ¾-year sentence in federal prison — be fired. But six of them — including the two highest-ranking, Deputy Chief David McNaughton and Chief of Detectives Eugene Roy — left the department before Superintendent Eddie Johnson could move to discipline them.
In 2016, Johnson sought to fire Franko, Mondragon, Sebastian and Viramontes but opted not to bring department charges against the 11th officer.
The board’s 55-page decision Thursday night comes three months after Franko and the three officers fought the disciplinary charges at a three-day hearing in which testimony and evidence were presented.
Unlike the more stringent reasonable doubt standard to prove guilt in a criminal trial, the Police Board found the officers violated department rules based on a preponderance of evidence, meaning it was more likely than not.
The Police Board found that Mondragon, Sebastian and Viramontes — all at the scene when McDonald was shot — lied or exaggerated what they saw that night to protect Van Dyke, while Franko, a supervisor, signed off on their false police reports.
Soon after the shooting, Mondragon told a detective that she didn’t see which officer opened fire on McDonald because she was putting her squad car in park. About a year and a half later, she stood by her account with Ferguson’s investigators, who scoffed at her claim, noting that Van Dyke took about 14 seconds to unload his 16-shot gun.
Sebastian, Mondragon’s partner that night, told the detective that McDonald continued to move after he was shot and fell to the street. In recommending the department charges against Sebastian, Ferguson’s investigators said the dashboard camera video — taken from her police SUV — showed that claim was misleading “at best.”
Viramontes also told the detective that McDonald continued to move after he was shot and fell to the street. The officer went even further, saying the teen tried to get up with the knife still in his hand. When Ferguson’s investigators showed him video of the shooting, Viramontes stood by his statements.
In his interview with Ferguson’s investigators, Franko tried to draw a distinction in the level of his involvement, telling them he only “reviewed” the officers’ reports but “did not approve anything.” He told Ferguson’s investigators he didn’t check the police reports for accuracy but defended describing three officers as battery victims because the reports didn’t offer an alternative to the word “battered.”
While admitting he approved one report that falsely listed Van Dyke as being injured during the encounter with McDonald, Franko claimed he had simply overlooked that detail in signing off on the report.
On the last day of the Police Board hearing in April, Tiffany Fordyce, a city lawyer, sought to poke holes in Viramontes’ claim that McDonald tried to get up after he was shot.
“He was on the ground twitching from the 16 bullets in his body,” she said in her closing remarks. “He did not get up.”
Fordyce also pointed out inconsistencies in Sebastian’s statements. While Sebastian told the detective after the shooting that McDonald continued to move after he was shot, she testified at the Police Board hearing that the teen didn’t pose a threat, Fordyce noted.
The city attorney also said that Franko, “utterly failed” to ensure the accuracy of the police reports, pointing out he had an opportunity to view the video of the shooting before his review.
Franko testified at the Police Board hearing that he had seen only a bit of the video.
In their closing arguments, the officers’ lawyers said the city had failed to prove their clients covered up the details of the shooting or even lied.
“If a police officer doesn’t see every single thing on video, it doesn’t make them a liar,” said William Fahy, Mondragon’s lawyer.
Thomas Pleines, Franko’s attorney, questioned how his client could have been part of an alleged conspiracy if he wasn’t even at the shooting.
Viramontes’ attorney, Jennifer Russell, pointed to an FBI-enhanced slow-motion version of the video that she said showed he was telling the truth.
Sebastian’s lawyer, Brian Sexton, said the city tried to prove its case by “Monday morning quarterbacking.”
Sexton said Sebastian’s perception — not the video — was crucial.
In Sebastian’s view, Sexton said, McDonald was “not walking away, getting away. He’s preparing for a confrontation.”