Four Chicago police officers who were on the scene the night black teen Laquan McDonald was fatally shot by a white officer are fighting to keep their jobs amid claims that they lied to cover up what happened before, during and after the infamous police shooting.
A three-day Chicago Police Board evidentiary hearing began Wednesday morning for police Sgt. Stephen Franko and Officers Janet Mondragon, Daphne Sebastian and Ricardo Viramontes to determine if they should be terminated because of their actions the night McDonald was killed in 2014.
The allegations differ against each of the four, but essentially boil down to this: Mondragon, Sebastian and Viramontes lied to investigators about McDonald’s actions during the incident while Franko signed off on reports that included false statements.
“That is what this case is about,” said attorney John Gibbons, who represents the city and police Superintendent Eddie Johnson. “In the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald shooting these four officers had a simple but very important duty: to tell the truth, the whole unvarnished truth, to those investigating that night.”
All four entered pleas of not guilty Wednesday and contend they accurately recounted what they saw and heard during the incident. They never faced any criminal charges stemming from the shooting.
Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder last year after he shot 17-year-old McDonald 16 times in the middle of South Pulaski Road while responding to a call for assistance just before 10 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2014.
Mondragon, Sebastian and Viramontes were each on the scene during the shooting, while Franko arrived there later.
Mondragon – who’s vehicle dashcam captured footage of the shooting – told investigators she didn’t see the shooting herself because she looked down to put her vehicle into park when Van Dyke opened fire. Attorneys for the city say that can’t be true because the video shows her vehicle is still moving when the shooting begins.
Sebastian, who was in the car with Mondragon, made statements indicating she saw McDonald advancing toward Van Dyke and wave a knife at the officer and his partner before the shooting. Viramontes said he saw McDonald try to get up off the ground, knife in hand, after being shot.
But the dashcam video, Gibbons said, only shows McDonald heading away from Van Dyke when the shooting began. He also claimed the teen never attempted to stab or injure Van Dyke or his partner and only moved on the ground once additional bullets pierced his body.
Because the officers’ statements are disputed by the video, according to Gibbons, they must have been lying.
That’s the same strategy used by special prosecutors who tried three other CPD officers last November on conspiracy charges for allegedly trying to cover-up the McDonald shooting. But the judge in that case dismissed that line of thinking, and those officers were acquitted on all charges earlier this year.
Likewise, attorneys for the officers in this case contend their clients didn’t lie; rather, they simply told investigators what they recalled from their perspectives.
“I’m asking the board to realize there’s a big difference between a lie and someone’s perception,” attorney Brian Sexton, who represents Sebastian, said during his opening statements Wednesday. “No two people are going to see or describe something the same way.”
Superintendent Johnson moved to fire the officers in August 2016 – almost two years after the fatal shooting occurred. That decision came after city Inspector General Joe Ferguson recommended that nearly a dozen officers be terminated for their roles in the incident and subsequent investigation.
Some of those officers have already left the department. Termination proceedings against Van Dyke have been delayed due to his criminal case and subsequent conviction. He is currently serving an 81-month prison sentence, but is scheduled for release in February 2022.
This week's hearing, which is being held in a cramped 12th-floor conference room at the Chicago Police Board’s headquarters, operates like a trial: a hearing officer oversees the case similar to a judge, there are opening and closing arguments, witnesses are called and testify under oath, and the officers are considered innocent until proven guilty.
Franko was the first to testify Wednesday morning. He explained that he didn’t believe it was his responsibility to correct any errors in official reports which made it appear as though Van Dyke had been the victim of a battery by McDonald before the shooting.
Those same reports were used by prosecutors in the conspiracy case in an attempt to prove officers had followed an unofficial “code of silence” as they worked to cover for Van Dyke and justify the shooting.
Franko instead testified he only reviewed the reports for “legibility and completeness” before passing them on to a supervisor for further review. He added that he only saw portions of the dashcam video in the hours after the shooting, saying he doesn’t “take any pride” in watching someone being shot.
While the hearing is scheduled to finish Friday, the officers’ fates won’t be determined for weeks or months.
After this week’s proceedings, the hearing officer overseeing the case will issue a report to the full Chicago Police Board. That nine-member body will then determine whether any of the officers should be terminated or otherwise disciplined during one of its upcoming monthly meetings.