Understanding Police Shooting Investigations


The city of Chicago has been ordered to release by Wednesday the police dash cam video of an officer shooting and killing Laquan McDonald. Media reports indicate the Cook County State’s Attorney will be charging the officer involved on Tuesday.

McDonald, an African-American teenager, was reportedly shot 16 times. The city has already reached an out-of-court financial settlement with McDonald's family, but the officer involved remains on desk duty and has not been charged with a crime, leading to questions about why the investigation has gone on for more than a year.

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Here to help us better understand investigations like this one are Dick Devine, former Cook County State's Attorney who is now with the firm Cozen O'Connor; and Chris Grohman, who spent five years as an assistant United States Attorney and is now a partner at the firm Durkin, Roberts, and Grohman.

[Chicago Prepares for Release of Controversial Police Shooting Video]

Multiple investigations at the local and federal level have been underway into the case.

“You really can’t automatically go by the fact that a settlement occurred to say, ‘A-ha! There’s criminal responsibility!’ The two don’t necessarily transfer from one to the other.”

–Dick Devine


“The State’s Attorney more or less drives the thing, but the timing of [a charge] could be affected by other agencies,” said former Cook County State’s Attorney Richard A. Devine. So too could the length of the investigation, as well as all the necessary investigation that accompanies a criminal case.

And even though the city settled the case quickly, Devine cautions that doesn’t mean criminal charges are a slam dunk.

“The city of Chicago has independent decisions to make on the civil side, and the civil standards of proof are different than those for a criminal charge. The elements for a crime are different than what might be involved in a civil claim. You really can’t automatically go by the fact that a settlement occurred to say, ‘A-ha! There’s criminal responsibility!’ The two don’t necessarily transfer from one to the other.”

[McDonald Family Attorney, Journalist React to Judge's Ruling on Controversial Police Video]

As for why federal prosecutors would also be interested in a case like this, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Grohman says there are two main reasons.

“One, the officer had a history of complaints and the State’s Attorney’s office or the police themselves have yet to do anything about it, so [the U.S. Attorney’s office feels] the need step in themselves,” he said. “Or two, the results of the offense, in this case the death of a young man, are so severe they think it’s worth looking at alongside the State’s Attorney’s office.”

Grohman says federal charges of a civil rights violation likely carry lower penalties than state homicide laws, so it’s better charged as a state crime. With the lengthy investigation into the Laquan McDonald case, it’s also raised old questions about whether prosecutors give favorable treatment to law enforcement.

[Laquan McDonald Police Video Release Stirs Mixed Reactions]

“No federal prosecutor is going to put his finger on the scales because they enjoy working with police officers,” Grohman said. “Especially in a case like this where there were 16 shots fired and somebody’s dead, they’re going to play this straight down the middle.”

“Police and prosecutors work together on hundreds of cases, so there is that. I think that’s what has led to the belief that they’re flip sides of the same coin. But there are differences of opinion,” Devine said. “It is not true that they are joined at the hip, or that prosecutors always agree with police.”

Devine also says the release of the video could complicate things for prosecutors in a potential criminal case.

“One of the concerns with releasing a disturbing video, as this has been referred to, is that it would create problems for selecting unbiased jurors at a trial, if one occurs,” he said. “Here you don’t have charges, so this is a little unusual, but certainly there are possible charges that will be there. And that is a concern and a responsibility that prosecutors have that the average person doesn’t have.”


Related 'Chicago Tonight' stories

Chicago Prepares for Release of Controversial Police Shooting Video

The city of Chicago has two days to release the controversial video involving a white police officer shooting an African-American teen 16 times and killing him. How are officials preparing for the fallout? 


City Will Release Laquan McDonald Police Shooting Video

Chicago officials are bracing for the release of a controversial video purported to show a white police officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, an African-American, 16 times and killing him.


McDonald Family Attorney, Journalist React to Judge's Ruling on Controversial Police Video

We talk with the freelance journalist who sued the city for the video and one of the attorneys representing the McDonald family during settlement talks with the city.


Laquan McDonald Police Video Release Stirs Mixed Reactions

We hear from two members of the black community as a Cook County judge orders the release of dashboard video footage of the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.


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