The four suspended Chicago police officers under investigation for their roles in the Laquan McDonald shooting will be put back on the department payroll before the probe is complete after the city’s police board on Monday delayed disciplinary proceedings.
Chicago Police Board Hearing Officer Tom Johnson announced that the disciplinary proceedings would be delayed until the completion of the criminal trial for a fifth officer in the case, Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke has been suspended without pay since November 2015, when he was charged with murder for killing McDonald, a 17-year-old who was shot 16 times as he held a knife.
The four other officers — Daphne Sebastian, Janet Mondragon, Ricardo Viramontes and Sgt. Stephen Franko — have been suspended without pay since last summer. Like Van Dyke, they face being fired over allegations they covered up the investigation of McDonald’s death by making and approving statements in police reports that were contradicted by video footage of the shooting.
While Van Dyke cannot return to duty because of his lingering criminal charges, Johnson’s decision Monday afternoon will allow the others to go back to work.
Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a statement Monday evening that he stands by his original recommendation that the officers be fired. He said the four officers, however, will be relieved of their police powers and be assigned to desk duty.
“While legally the ruling leaves us with no other short-term options, the officers’ police powers will remain suspended and they will not return to the street,” Johnson said in the statement.
It’s unclear whether the four officers will be compensated for all the money they were not paid since last summer.
Hearing Officer Tom Johnson said Monday that the disciplinary proceedings by the police board would “prejudice and potentially jeopardize the criminal prosecutions and the officers’ constitutional rights.”
In its 14-page decision, the board said the Police Department could be violating the constitutional rights of the four officers if they continued to be suspended without pay. That could provide grounds to have the disciplinary cases dismissed and allow the officers to “escape any disciplinary punishment whatsoever,” the board said.
The board’s decision was a response to motions filed by Van Dyke’s lawyer and by a special Cook County prosecutor assigned to look into police actions in the McDonald case. The attorneys argued that the disciplinary statements Van Dyke and the other officers were required to make during the internal investigation may be used as evidence that could affect Van Dyke’s criminal trial.
Under a decades-old legal standard, statements that government employees are forced to give under threat of being fired cannot be used against them in criminal proceedings. Sebastian, Mondragon, Viramontes and Franko have not been charged with any crime. But they are part of an ongoing criminal probe by a special Cook County prosecutor looking into whether there was a cover-up in the shooting.
Chicago police officers accused of criminal wrongdoing are not typically brought up before the police board on disciplinary charges until their court cases are over with. The McDonald shooting case has been an exception.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham said the board’s decision ensures that the officers will be treated fairly.
“There has been a decadeslong tradition that the Police Department does not file (termination) charges until their criminal cases have been heard,” Graham said. “I hope that these officers can get back to being on the pay status very, very quickly, and certainly I hope that the case winds its way to a successful conclusion.”
Daniel Herbert, Van Dyke’s lawyer, would not comment after the hearing. But lawyers for the other officers were pleased that their clients will be allowed to get paid by the Police Department, at least until the criminal proceedings run their course.
“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. I’ve never seen the police board tell the superintendent, ‘No, you can’t suspend these guys,'” Tom Pleines, Franko’s lawyer, told reporters. “There’s no doubt they were involved in a very serious matter, but there’s been no determination that they did anything wrong.”
The disciplinary charges before the police board focus largely on alleged dishonesty but varied on specifics among Sebastian, Mondragon, Viramontes and Franko. All are alleged, though, to have violated Rule 14, which bars them from making false reports.
Van Dyke stated in reports that he fired his weapon in fear for his life when McDonald advanced on him with a knife. On the video, however, Van Dyke can be seen jumping from his car and opening fire within seconds as McDonald appears to walk away from him.
Sebastian and Mondragon reported that Van Dyke and his partner, Joseph Walsh, repeatedly ordered McDonald to drop the knife. The teen ignored them as he waved a blade while approaching the two officers, according to what Sebastian and Mondragon stated in police reports.
Viramontes stated that McDonald turned toward Van Dyke and Walsh after Van Dyke told the teen to drop the knife. After Van Dyke shot McDonald, the teen fell to the street but continued to move, trying to get back up with the knife, according to Viramontes’ account in the reports.
The department charged Franko with, among other things, signing off on Van Dyke’s allegedly false reports on the incident.
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who helped push for the release of the McDonald video, was disappointed in Monday’s decision, believing the four officers helped try to cover up the shooting and should remain in a no-pay status.
“That’s not a step in the right direction for the Chicago Police Department,” he said.