Up close and personal with journalist who broke Laquan McDonald shooting

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CHICAGO -- The independent journalist who broke the story of the police shooting of Laquan Mcdonald has won the prestigious George Polk award for local reporting, one of the highest honors in journalism.

That story led the release of police dashcam video of the shooting.

The first-ever charge of first-degree murder against an on-duty Chicago police officer, and ongoing reforms within the police department.

But it’s a story we almost didn’t hear. How we did is a story in itself.

The reporting that led to this began over a decade ago.

A stone’s throw from police headquarters, with a reporter who says he was uncovering new allegations of police misconduct almost every day.

That led him to dig deeper, searching for systemic problems within the department. He found them. And now he’s putting them in a place where no one can miss them.

But that is changing, Kalven is the first to point out that the Emanuel administration, for all the heat it’s taking, is still light years ahead of its predecessors in terms of transparency.

By any measure, there’s still a long way to go.

Since it was created in 2007, the Independent Police Review Authority has investigated over 400 police-involved shootings.

It's found all but two to be justified.

And right now, there are 644 IPRA investigations still open.

If you’d like to learn more about the Citizen’s Police Data project, check out:


This is where we are today in the story of troubled teen Laquan Macdonald, watching the melee that follows his killer into court at 26th and California.

No one’s debating whether officer Jason van Dyke caused Laquan’s death.

The question is, was it 1st-degree murder?”

An even better question might be: can Van Dyke possibly get a fair trial?

“This is a war zone, the city of Chicago,” says Dan Herbert, Van Dyke’s lawyer.

If it’s a war zone, Stateway Gardens, was one of the biggest battlegrounds.

It was a once-infamous public housing project on the South Side, where independent journalist Jamie Kalven was being bombarded with stories of police corruption and brutality.

“I was observing, from day-to-day, patterns of police abuse; from just open corruption. Officers coming, shaking down drug dealers, taking money, not making arrests," he said.

“Sending people off to find guns, saying, you know, ‘I won’t arrest you if you bring me a gun. “Behavior of just sort of racist, ugly character, lots of physical brutality, these are just routine day to day things,” Kalven added.

Stateway was just a block-and-a-half from police headquarters, across the street from the agency we now know as IPRA - the Independent Police Review Authority. Those facts, combined with what Jamie was seeing every day, raised a question:

“What sort of institutional conditions would have to exist for this to be the case?” asked Kalven.

In other words, was there a code of silence -- a wall of blue that stood between taxpayers and the truth? And how did that wall go?

It didn’t take a lot of digging. In the case of IPRA, it wasn’t that the answers weren’t there. There seemed to be an effort not to find them.

Enter Laquan Mcdonald. The official, and police union version, was that the 17-year-old, armed with a knife, had been shot and killed by an officer who feared for his life.

The story would likely have ended right there.

But knowing of Jamie Kalven’s work in the area of police misconduct, a whistle-blower comes forward, saying not only is the official story not true - there’s video, and it’s horrifying.

Stonewalled by police and city hall, Kalven finds a witness, then gets the autopsy report.

He learns that only one of the eight officers on-scene that night fired his weapon. And that that officer fired 16 times.

We’d later learn Jason van Dyke had at least 19 prior complaints, none of which resulted in disciplinary action, even though one led to a lawsuit..and a half-million dollar payout by the city.

"I don’t want to suggest that there’s a crystal ball in the data and that you could have predicted what happened to Laquan Mcdonald. That’s not the point. But there was enough in Jason van Dyke’s disciplinary record that it just cried out for somebody to see what was going on with this officer; see if he needed help- see if he needed- firing? Firing. Whatever,” said Kalven.


Today, there’s a way to track that data “The Citizens Police Data Project” set up not by city hall or the police department but by Kalven’s group, “The Invisible Institute,” using litigation and the freedom of information act to compile a partial list of citizen complaints against police:  56,384.

“I don’t think any of us ever anticipated that there would be a moment like that. Like the one we’re living through now. If we investigated other crimes like we investigate allegations against the police, we would never close a case,” Kalven says.

“Right now, we have a system that all but ensures that there will be future Laquan Mcdonalds,” he adds.

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