‘The Tendency Is to Just Publish the Police Blotter’

Janine Jackson interviewed Jamie Kalven about the Laquan McDonald cover-up for the December 11 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: At times when media or politicians talk about video, like that of a Chicago police officer killing a 17-year-old, as inciting public unrest, you’d think they believe it is not the horrific action shown, its context and implication, that inflamed–but simply the video itself. It’s as if when it comes to police violence against mostly poor, mostly people of color, some believe things would go easier if we just didn’t know.

That’s a luxury, of course, and affected community members don’t actually need more proof of their experience. But for journalists, we would hope that “it’s better to know” would be a core principle.

The case of officer Jason Van Dyke and Laquan McDonald has led to public protest, an unprecedented charge of first degree murder for an on duty Chicago officer and the resignation so far, as we tape on December 2, of Chicago police chief Garry McCarthy. Is the depth of media coverage appropriate for a story that’s about much more than a single killing?

Our next guest has been involved in the case for some time now, Jamie Kalven is a writer and human rights activist working with the group Invisible Institute. He joins us now by phone from Chicago. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jamie Kalven.

Jamie Kalven:   Thank you, it’s good to be with you.

Laquan McDonald

Laquan McDonald

JJ: The Chicago Tribune ran an excited editorial last week, demanding to know, why did it take 13 months to charge Van Dyke with a crime when authorities had the video and an autopsy in days? Who was responsible for the initial false narrative that McDonald was lunging at Van Dyke with a knife? What’s up with the missing surveillance video from the nearby Burger King?

These are all appropriate questions for November 27, 2015, but take us back, if you would, to October 2014, when Jason Van Dyke killed Laquan McDonald. What can you say about media coverage at the time?

JK: I think it’s a really important question and it hasn’t been talked about enough. The media are part of the same machinery as the police department’s false narrative about individual instances like the Laquan McDonald case, and larger macro-narratives about the state of the city. And so part of what is getting lost right now–and understandably, given the extreme and egregious nature of what I think can only be called the execution of Laquan McDonald–is that this is not a huge departure from the norm; this is the norm.

So on October 20 of last year, the “police-involved” shooting of a black teenager on the Southwest Side was treated by the media, on the basis of information solely provided by the police department and a spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union, as a kind of routine story of officer self-defense: Young man with a knife lunges at officers, is shot in the chest and dies some time later.

Completely uncritical response. A police shooting, almost invariably, about 80-85 percent of the time, of an African-American–that’s a story that occurs between 45 and 50 times a year in Chicago. We as journalists do not, unless there are exceptional circumstances, dig into the story to do the hard work, on the scene, in the neighborhood, to find out what happened. To this day, even in this post-Ferguson era, the tendency is to just publish the police blotter.

I don’t want to exclude myself from that indictment of the press. I was brought to the story, not by my own hunch or insight or intuition about what had happened here, but by a whistleblower who reached out to a colleague of mine, Craig Futterman, a civil rights lawyer, and myself, with a tip a couple of weeks after the shooting, to the effect that the facts were sharply at variance with the official account, that there was video, and he was in a position close enough to the investigation to say that he was concerned that this was not going to be vigorously investigated.

Jason Van Dyke

Officer Jason Van Dyke

JJ: Well, walk us through some of the journalistic work involved here.

JK: Among the things that the whistleblower provided was enough information that I was able to track down a civilian witness to the shooting. He was not happy to have me appear on his doorstep. He was really worried about the possibility of police retaliation, and he told me then, ultimately in great detail, and he was extremely credible, what he saw.

He was a motorist, his passage had been blocked by this unfolding event. He had had an unobstructed view of the shooting. He gave a really vivid and powerful account that ultimately completely aligns with the video we’ve now seen.

I’ve spoken with another witness as well, and these are grown men and formidable individuals who, because of what they’ve seen–to witness the execution of a young man by the police in the course of their day, was such a break with reality, such a break with their expectations about reality, that they came away feeling like anything’s possible. If the state can do this, anything is possible. So the fear in the witnesses was one of the really striking–and it continues to this day–really striking things about it.

I was able to learn through a high official in Cook County, who reached out on my behalf to the medical examiner, I was able to learn in January the content of the autopsy. Autopsies take several months before they are subject to Freedom of Information Act— are finalized and can be FOIAed. So I knew in advance of being able to get the document what it would contain, and then when I got it, I was able to publish a detailed account, which I published in Slate. This was so radically inconsistent with the police account, that Laquan McDonald had been shot 16 times and the bullets had entered front and back. So that was the next kind of pivotal point.

Everyone has asked, how could the city wait so long and hold this information back? And it’s important to recognize that everything we know now was known by the police department at the highest level of the city within hours after the shooting.

JJ: Right.

Laquan McDonald autopsy

Notes from Laquan McDonald’s autopsy indicating the 16 shots.

JK: They had both police and civilian witnesses; they had the videotape; the autopsy was performed the next morning. They had all of this information.

They were also operating, it seems clear now, within two broad frames. One was autumn 2014; Ferguson is in virtual uprising. The mayor and the police superintendent of a city like Chicago: What was the worst possible thing that could happen? It would be the outrageous and utterly unjustified, fatal shooting of a black teenager by a policer officer.

The other broad context and frame was the mayor was running for re-election. So at various points, I think decisions were made, I don’t know precisely what they were, in relation to this, we have to get through the election cycle while containing this case.

In the 48 hours before I published about the autopsy in Slate, I tried to get a comment from the department. I called the news office repeatedly. I sent emails. The news guy had always just left his desk and was going to call me back. I couldn’t even get a “no comment.”

The piece in Slate appeared at 8 something at night, beyond the end of the workday; the FOIA that my colleagues submitted revealed that within 12 or 13 minutes after it was posted, the full text of the article was in the email box of the mayor’s entire senior staff. So they were hyper, hyper-vigilant about anything written about this case.

Then the other critical point in the narrative is in late February, lawyers representing the family of Laquan McDonald, in a kind of an unexpected development, through the probate process—they had to establish the estate of Laquan McDonald in order to represent the family. It turns out probate provides subpoena powers, so they were able to subpoena the city for records related to the death of Laquan McDonald, and through that process got a copy of the video.

At which point (and this is within weeks of the mayor’s runoff election), with the video in hand, not yet having actually filed a lawsuit–they were preparing a wrongful death suit, but they hadn’t yet filed — they reached out to the city law department and said, we have to talk. And fairly quickly were able to negotiate a $5 million settlement for the benefit of the family, but conditioned on not releasing the video.

A lot of different things have entered into this: Ferguson concerns, the mayor’s re-election, but also I think just the culture of how the police department responds, and I’ve said this repeatedly in recent weeks, is that what is really striking if you look at all the different acts–including officers at the scene, and then how the investigative process was handled–at every stage, at every level of the police department and the city, in response to this utterly appalling incident, the impulse, the default, just the cultural reflex, was to circle the wagons and to double down on what they absolutely had to know was a false narrative.

So, you know, there is a lot of talk in Chicago now about conspiracy and cover-up, and I think those words have their place, but I think they are also misleading, and I think what we’re confronting is something in some ways more disturbing, which is the culture. You know, we talk about the “code of silence,” which is one of those really resonant phrases, and it’s very evocative because there is in fact a kind of coerced silence of police officers, who witness abuses but are intimidated into silence by fear of retaliation. I think there is also silence of victims, who know they won’t be believed and won’t be taken seriously, so the term makes some sense.

But there’s another sense in which it’s really inapt, because what something like the Laquan McDonald incident reflects, and I think it’s an instance of a much, much broader phenomenon, is an absolute fierce effort to maintain narrative control. So the code of silence is a tool in the service of narrative control. And to come back to the press, that is where I think we have not been as effective as we might be in penetrating and piercing that dynamic, and it’s critical to do so. I mean, how many other Laquan McDonalds are there?

JJ: Exactly. Well, I would say that we have to talk about extending that culture to include media as well. It’s very interesting to hear that within minutes of your Slate piece on the autopsy going up, the mayoral administration was on it, and yet even though it really did contradict the narrative, it didn’t lead to the change in media coverage that the video subsequently did. Although the autopsy itself was a very graphic depiction of the fact that the initial story that police had told was not true, could not be true, and yet somehow it did not lead to what we are seeing now, which is not to denigrate what we are seeing now.

But let me ask you about that, because in this Tribune editorial, they say, basically, let’s hear it for whistleblowers and for FOIA. “If not for a whistleblower, this might have all ended with the CYA narrative”–the Cover Your Ass narrative–”supplied by the police,” and they demand, “Who is going to get to the bottom of this?”

And there’s never a call-out of reporters themselves. But whistleblowers need someone to get the story out, and FOIA is not useful unless someone actually uses it!

JK: I found witnesses, I found civilian witnesses, who have played a significant role in this, and have been to the grand jury and will figure downstream and in prosecution. Why am I uniquely doing that? There’s also just a kind of reporting that involves being on the street, cultivating relationships, having sources in the neighborhood that you can assess in terms of credibility, that has almost completely–to the extent that it ever existed, and I can only speak for Chicago–has almost completely atrophied. And I think it’s partly the debilitated establishment media, in terms of the economic crisis in journalism, but I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation. I think it also is a question of core values and priorities.

Journalism has a lot to answer for in this, and for all of the righteous indignation of this moment–which, again, I don’t want to sound dismissive of–virtually none of it, apart from this conversation and a couple of blog posts I’ve seen, has been directed at the role of journalism, as part of how–thinking back to your opening–we go about not knowing things that we’re capable of knowing about fundamental human rights issues.

JJ: What would you say about reporting going forward? We have evidence, not just of an institutional climate in the police department that lets a police officer think they can do this, but we have a cover-up that extends to other levels; we’ve had a year of false narrative. So what should reporting going forward do, to be appropriate to the issues at stake here?

JK: Well, I think sort of there are two dimensions of an answer there. One is collectively, part of this is legal process and part of this is journalistic. The mayor has now created a task force to look at police accountability issues, there are a number of different venues for this, but I think it is just critical to–in the most minute detail–learn everything that can be learned from the negative example of what happened, and how the police department and the city responded in the Laquan McDonald incident.

This is a wretched, infinitely regrettable, tragic incident. It also, at this juncture, is a really precious public resource, and we need to make sure that we’re not just blaming and media speculation about who’s going to get fired next, but really looking at building the true narrative of what happened. That’s one thing.

I think another is–I’m a great champion of FOIA, and the last time we talked was about a lawsuit I was the plaintiff in that resulted in a ruling that policemen’s conduct files are public. And since we’ve talked, we published a database with all that information on it–and if people are interested, the title is The Citizens Police Data Project.

So I don’t want to minimize the central importance of FOIA, but there is a tremendous amount of information that bears on these issues that you can only find on the ground, in the neighborhoods most affected by these patterns of abuse, and also a kind of abandonment, and that’s the sort of reporting that I am personally deeply committed to. There’s so many things that can be learned only by immersing yourself in these human situations.

And especially, to go back to your theme of denial and not knowing, we have in this society, around issues of race, an extraordinary ability to know things and not know things at the same time. This is really extraordinary, and I think journalists have a critical role in sort of disabling that kind of knowing and not knowing, those strategies of denial.

Part of that is the fundamental difficulty and intractability of some of these issues, and so if you don’t feel like you can be effective in relation to them, it’s hard to dwell on them. But I think journalism has a lot to answer for. I think we aid and abet people’s strategies of denial to a significant degree, and the only way I know of moving against that is really to immerse oneself as a journalist in those human situations.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jamie Kalven; you can find the work of Invisible Institute online at InvisibleInstitute.com. Thank you so much, Jamie Kalven, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JK: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.