A frame from the dash-cam video of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald. The 17-year-old, carrying a knife, walks down Pulaski Road as officers Jason Van Dyke and Joseph Walsh train their guns on him. Moments later, Van Dyke, the officer on the right in this frame, opened fire on McDonald. Credit: Chicago Police Department via AP, File

Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald because McDonald threatened him with a knife, Van Dyke told a detective at the scene of the fatal shooting. In a second interview a few hours later, Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer now charged with McDonald’s murder, offered further reasons why he opened fire on the 17-year-old—including concerns that McDonald’s knife could be spring-loaded or could shoot a bullet.

These were among the revelations in the hundreds of pages of reports from the McDonald shooting investigation released by the Chicago Police Department late Friday. The documents are a testament to the willingness of police officers, detectives, and supervisors to whitewash a shooting by one of their own, regardless of what video evidence shows.

The release of these reports has been somewhat eclipsed by the other big, related stories that broke since Friday: Mayor Emanuel’s announcement Sunday that he’d replaced the head of the Independent Police Review Authority; Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s announcement Monday morning that the Justice Department will investigate the CPD; the release Monday of a video of the fatal police shooting of Ronald Johnson, accompanied by Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez’s announcement that no one would be charged; and the release late Monday of a video showing police Tasing a prisoner in a cell, then dragging him down a hall. 

In the investigation of the McDonald shooting, Van Dyke first told detective David March that McDonald was swinging the knife “in an aggressive, exaggerated manner” as McDonald “continued to advance” on him, according to the detective’s written summary of that interview. Van Dyke said he repeatedly ordered McDonald to drop the knife, but McDonald ignored him. When McDonald got within ten to 15 feet, he “raised the knife across his chest and over his shoulder, pointing the knife at Van Dyke,” March’s summary continues. “Van Dyke believed McDonald was attacking Van Dyke with the knife and attempting to kill Van Dyke. In defense of his life, Van Dyke backpedaled and fired his handgun at McDonald to stop the attack.”  

After McDonald fell to the ground, he “continued to grasp the knife, refusing to let go of it,” March’s summary says. McDonald also “appeared to be attempting to get up, all the while continuing to point the knife at Van Dyke.” So Van Dyke kept shooting, emptying the magazine of his semiautomatic, firing 16 times in all. Then he loaded another magazine. But by this time, McDonald “was no longer moving and the threat had been mitigated,” as Detective March’s report puts it.  

The shooting occurred at 9:57 PM on October 20, 2014, in the 4100 block of South Pulaski. The dash-cam video released by the CPD two weeks ago refutes much of what Van Dyke told March. It doesn’t show McDonald advancing on Van Dyke, but Van Dyke advancing slightly on McDonald, as McDonald walks southbound on Pulaski. The distance between Van Dyke and McDonald closes to about 10 feet right before Van Dyke shoots, but McDonald doesn’t appear to raise the knife across his chest or over his shoulder. Van Dyke never backpedals; he steps toward McDonald as he begins to shoot. McDonald never appears to be getting up after he’s knocked to the pavement by the bullets. His upper body does move slightly, perhaps from the impact of Van Dyke’s barrage, but his legs are still. 

Detective March’s second interview of Van Dyke was at 6:10 the following morning, at an area station. Van Dyke “related the same sequence of events” as in the interview at the scene, but added a few other explanations for his decision to shoot McDonald, according to March’s report:

Van Dyke was aware of the widely accepted teaching in law enforcement that an assailant armed with a knife was considered a deadly threat, if within 21 feet, because it was possible for such an assailant to close that distance and attack with a knife before a defensive shot could be fired from a handgun. Van Dyke was also aware of the existence of throwing knives, which can be thrown from a distance, as well as spring loaded knives, which propel a blade through the air from the knife handle. Van Dyke also said he recalled a previously issued Chicago Police Department bulletin warning of a weapon which appeared to be a knife but which was actually capable of firing a bullet, making it a firearm.   

March went on to note that a search of CPD records showed that a safety bulletin was indeed issued to officers in December 2012, warning them of a “revolver knife” capable of firing .22-caliber cartridges. The bulletin featured a photo of the revolver knife that had been forwarded to CPD by a “midwest intelligence organization.”

I found no news reports of revolver knives ever being used in a crime in Chicago. I asked CPD’s news affairs department yesterday if, to CPD’s knowledge, such a weapon had ever been used or recovered here, but I haven’t heard back.  

It’s possible, of course, that someone advised Van Dyke to offer the additional reasons for shooting McDonald. March’s handwritten notes appear to indicate that two Fraternal Order of Police representatives and lawyer Daniel Herbert (who now represents Van Dyke) came to the shooting scene. 

The added ​fears Van Dyke cited in the second interview could help him in his criminal case. A judge or jury might be unwilling to find that he shot McDonald in self-defense, but could compromise on second-degree murder. (He’s charged with first degree.) In second-degree murder, a person believes he’s acting in self-defense, but the belief is unreasonable. The sentence for first degree murder is 20 to 60 years; for second degree, it’s four to 20.

From the standpoint of police procedure, those additional fears, assuming Van Dyke really had them, don’t justify his actions. The video shows him stepping out of the passenger side of his police vehicle, which gave him no cover from McDonald. An officer who fears that a subject might leap at him with a knife, or might have a throwing knife, or a spring-loaded knife, or a knife that can shoot a bullet, would want to make sure he has cover protecting him from that subject. Such basic police training rules are more than niceties; ignoring them can jeopardize the lives of officers, and lead to shootings by them that seem necessary but weren’t

Van Dyke’s partner, officer Joseph Walsh, also told Detective March that McDonald swung the knife aggressively at him and Van Dyke, and that after Van Dyke began shooting McDonald, the teen “continued moving on the ground, attempting to get up.” Walsh said that when the gunfire stopped, he kicked the knife out of McDonald’s hand. It did not discharge. It was a simple folding knife with a three-inch blade. 

Walsh added that as the officers waited for the ambulance, he told McDonald to “hang in there.” (McDonald died on the way to Mount Sinai Hospital.) 

Other officers on the scene either corroborated Van Dyke’s and Walsh’s accounts or said they didn’t see what precipitated the shooting.

In the waning hours of October 20 or early the next day, Detective March viewed the dash-cam video—the one CPD released two weeks ago. He found that what Van Dyke and Walsh and the other witnesses told him was “consistent” with the video.

March’s final report, which was also signed by Sergeant Daniel Gallagher and Lieutenant Anthony Wojcik, concluded that McDonald had “initiated an attack on Officers Jason Van Dyke and Joseph Walsh” that was “likely to cause death or serious injury”—and that Van Dyke’s shooting of McDonald was therefore within CPD’s use-of-force guidelines. It was the same finding that another of the reports put more succinctly: “Criminal Attacked Officer,” so “Officer Killed Criminal.”