The Laquan McDonald Shooting Video and the Failure of Ethical Decision Making


~6 minute read


Chicago skyline


In recent days, Chicago has been overtaken by protesters angered by what they saw in the just released video of a white police officer (Jason Van Dyke) shooting a black teenager (Laquan McDonald) who appeared to be moving away from officers when the shooting occurred. Prior to its release, the video had been described by those who had seen it as graphic, chilling and disturbing. It is all of that and more. It documents the final, violent moments of a troubled teen who was failed by so many adults throughout his life and in the aftermath of his death including those who were responsible for caring for him while he was growing up, the seven police officers who were present in the moments leading up to his murder by one of their fellow officers, and the police command, politicians, attorneys and others who sought first to protect themselves and their own interests from the consequences of this senseless act.


Failed Ethical Decision Making

The events leading up to and those following McDonald’s murder are filled with numerous examples of failed ethical decision making by many who are sworn to uphold the public trust. Some examples of these failures include:

  • Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy and the entire police command who at no time disciplined or found fault with Jason Van Dyke prior to the teen’s murder despite 20 citizen complaints against him and a $350,000 civil judgment against the officer and his partner for excessive use of force against a black motorist during a traffic stop.
  • Police officers on the scene that night who falsely told investigators that McDonald lunged at them just prior to being shot in order to cover for their colleague who put 16 bullets into the teen. The dash cam video shows that not only did McDonald not lunge at officers, he was moving away from them when the first shot was fired.
  • The members of the Chicago City Council who voted to use taxpayer funds to pay a $5 million settlement to the teen’s mother prior to a lawsuit being filed without demanding that they be shown a video of the incident. By choosing to forgo seeing the video and voting for the quick payout, they enabled what is now beginning to look like a massive attempt by the police department to cover up not only Van Dyke’s actions but also the actions of multiple officers who broke all sorts of protocols including lying to investigators, telling eyewitnesses to leave the scene without so much as obtaining their contact information, possibly tampering with audio that is mysteriously missing from not one but five different police dash cams that recorded video footage that night and possibly erasing 86 minutes of surveillance video that has mysteriously been deleted from a nearby camera that may have caught the officers’ interactions with McDonald before the shooting.
  • The Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel, who spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars fighting the release of the video under the guise that releasing it would harm an investigation into the matter. A judge disagreed and forced the release of the video 13 months later. The Mayor claimed right up to the day the video was released that he himself had not seen it. If that is true, then the Mayor’s actions—urging the City Council to pay a $5 million settlement before a lawsuit was filed and then spending taxpayer dollars to fight the release of the video—placed in the context of an environment in which the Mayor said nothing while the police department continued to feed a false narrative of the events of that night to the press and while also not demanding some level of accountability for the officer involved, looks an awful lot like the Mayor’s priority was self-preservation. This looks particularly true when one considers that public reaction to that video would have cost the Mayor the black vote and his re-election bid had the video been released prior to the April 2015 election.


A Bigger Problem

Each of these examples of failed ethical decision making points to a larger problem, one that is playing out repeatedly in our society. The problem is this: too many of us have come to believe that overlooking or covering up the wrongdoing of others is acceptable behavior if we can rationalize that we are either “protecting our own” or if exposing that wrongdoing may create an unpleasant experience for us. Too many of us lack what is necessary to stand up and speak out. Too many of us lack the ability to say something when we see something.

This failure of ethical will within the larger population has produced far too many leaders who are unwilling to be held accountable for failures that occur on their watch—failures that often result from the tone at the top. It has resulted in far too many situations in which individuals escape being held accountable for their actions. And it costs all of us, our entire society, too much–whether it’s the millions of dollars that Chicago taxpayers have shelled out in recent years to pay settlements to victims of police wrongdoing when the officers themselves are never held accountable or the billions of dollars of economic loss we collectively experience when we pay higher interest rates on things like mortgages, school loans and credit card debt because a small group of individuals on Wall Street decided that neither laws nor codes of conduct applied to them.


What Would You Do?

In every one of these situations, someone other than the wrongdoers knows the truth and too often no one says anything. It is not easy to stand up and speak out when we see something wrong in our workplaces, but say something we must.

Ask yourself: if it were you, could you stand against the blue wall of silence and tell the truth about what happened that night knowing that you would face backlash? Could you stand against a powerful mayor and demand to see the video before voting for a settlement, knowing that there would be repercussions to you in your position as an alderman? Could you, as mayor, release that video when it was originally demanded in 2014 knowing that it would likely cost you the election?

It is in answering these questions that we each begin to understand our own ethical weaknesses. There is no shame in recognizing that we each have ethical weaknesses. The shame is in doing nothing to strengthen them so that when our time comes to speak up—and it will—we will be prepared to do the right thing.

Speaking up is the right thing to do and it benefits and protects all of us—collectively and individually.


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