Skip to main content

Before Laquan McDonald, a Chicago Police Shooting with No Video

For one Chicago mother, the shooting of Laquan McDonald is sadly familiar

This article originally appeared in The New Yorker on December 1, 2015.

By Alex Kotlowitz

There was something sadly familiar about the video released last week of a police officer in Chicago shooting a seventeen-year-old, Laquan McDonald, sixteen times. After the city’s lawyers viewed the video, earlier this year, they offered McDonald’s family five million dollars, before the family had even filed a lawsuit. In the past ten years, the city has paid five hundred and twenty-one million dollars in alleged police-misconduct cases, according to a study by the Better Government Association, a local non-profit watchdog group. For many, these settlements are the only acknowledgement that officers might have acted unprofessionally, or, worse yet, outside of the law. After the video emerged, last week, I spoke with one of the many families who have received settlements from the city. I met Dana Cross while researching a book on the city’s street violence. “They paid us off,” she told me. “I just want those police officers off the street. If they did it to my baby, they’ll do it again.”

On the night of May 31, 2011, Cross had just returned home from her job at a day-care center. As she entered her house, in West Pullman, a predominately African-American, working-class neighborhood on the city’s South Side, her son, Calvin, who had just turned nineteen, and his friend Ryan Cornell, who was seventeen, were headed out to meet some girls at a nearby bus stop. Calvin and Ryan had met in the Job Corps, and Cross had agreed to let Ryan live with them since he came from a fractured family. Her son, she says, was like a mentor to Ryan. When Calvin got a job during tax season, he helped Ryan get one, too. (They dressed up as the Statue of Liberty and handed out flyers for a local accounting service.) Cross ran a tight ship. The one time her son got in trouble with the police—at fifteen, he got picked up for violating curfew—she made him sit in the police station for three hours before getting him. She was especially upset with him because he had told the police that she was out of town. She insisted that her children attend church with her. Calvin was a member of the choir and the pastor, a Chicago firefighter, was his godfather.

After Calvin and Ryan left the house, Cross put on a full-length housedress and was readying herself for bed when she heard a fusillade of bullets from somewhere nearby. A few minutes later, Ryan came to the front door, out of breath. “They’re shooting at Jack, they’re shooting at Jack,” he told Cross. Jack was Calvin’s nickname.

The next morning, Cross identified her son’s body at the morgue. Both the city’s dailies ran short, next-day articles which reported that a man had shot “several” times at three police officers, who fired back while giving chase. According to the stories, the police department’s press release stated that when the suspect abruptly turned toward the officers they shot again, killing him. Nothing more was written about the incident.

Here, though, are the facts, as established by the Chicago police, by the city’s Law Department and by the Independent Police Review Authority (I.P.R.A.), a civilian agency established in 2007 to examine police shootings and alleged police misconduct. Three police officers riding in a marked squad car came upon Calvin and Ryan walking on the sidewalk down a side street. All three officers—who belonged to the department’s Mobile Strike Force unit, which was deployed to high-crime areas and which has since been disbanded—were dressed in black uniforms, and the officer in the back seat had a military-grade assault rifle strapped to his chest. The officers said that they saw Calvin fidget with something in his waistband, leading them to believe he may have been carrying either drugs or a gun, and so they pulled to the curb, illuminated the two with a spotlight and ordered Calvin and Ryan to freeze. One of the officers yelled at them, Show me your hands. Ryan, who had been stopped by the police before, remained in place and displayed his hands. Calvin ran. Two of the officers later told investigators and testified in depositions that, as Calvin fled, he pulled a revolver from his waistband and shot at them over his shoulder. In a deposition, one officer testified that Calvin shot “more than three times.” Another recalled that “as I got closer to him, I saw Calvin Cross reach into his front waistband and he began to fire his gun … towards my direction.”

The officers continued shooting as they chased Calvin across a residential street and into a vacant lot adjacent to a church. All together, they fired forty-five rounds of ammunition. One officer fired the full twenty-eight rounds from his rifle and had shifted to his Beretta pistol when they found Calvin lying in some thick brush. The two officers who ran to the vacant lot said that Calvin, who in all likelihood was wounded at this point, refused their orders to show his hands, and so they fired again. Calvin was shot a total of five times, including what appears to have been the fatal shot, to his forehead, at the bridge of his nose. He died on the scene.

When the shooting began, Quinntellbua Benson, a forty-seven-year-old former long-haul truck driver who had returned to school to become a computer specialist, was walking toward his sister’s house, on the corner. He threw himself to the ground to take cover. When the gunfire subsided, he rose and went into his sister’s home. A short while later, he poked his head out the front door, and he told me that he watched as a group of police officers responding to the incident stood by the spot where he had lay on the sidewalk. It soon became clear that they had found a gun there, though Benson was perplexed, he told me, since Calvin hadn’t run anywhere near him.

According to the investigations by both the Chicago police and I.P.R.A., the recovered gun was a Smith & Wesson revolver, so old and clogged with “dirt and grime” that a State Police examination determined that it was inoperable. It had been manufactured in 1919. Moreover, all six bullets were still in the chamber. Investigators found no gun residue on Cross’s hands and no fingerprints on the gun. So, the natural question is: How could Calvin Cross have shot at the police?

Nonetheless, the I.P.R.A. concluded that two of the officers “reported seeing Mr. Cross pointing and firing his weapon at the officers.” Yet the evidence points to something different.

In recent months, Chicago has experienced a confluence of events amounting to the perfect storm of questions surrounding police accountability. In May, the City Council approved a $5.5 million reparations package for many of the some one hundred men, most of them African-American from the city’s South Side, who were tortured—electric shocks, beatings, smotherings with typewriter covers, and simulated Russian roulette—by the police commander Jon Burge. For many years, the city denied the torture, which took place between 1972 and 1991. In addition to compensation, the package included a commitment to build a memorial to the victims and a directive to teach all eighth- and tenth-grade students in the Chicago Public Schools about the Burge case. In July, Lorenzo Davis, a former investigator for the I.P.R.A., publicly claimed that he was fired because he refused to change investigation findings that determined a police shooting to be unjustified. Davis, who is now suing the agency for wrongful termination, had previously served in the Chicago Police Department for twenty-three years, several of them as a commander. I.P.R.A. has publicly denied Davis’s allegations. Last month, after winning a lawsuit against the city, a journalist, Jamie Kalven, and a lawyer, Craig Futterman, launched a Web site,The Citizens Police Data Project, that found, among other things, that twenty-eight thousand five hundred citizen complaints were filed from 2011 to 2015, but only three per cent resulted in officers being disciplined. Last week, a year after a policeman shot Laquan McDonald, the States Attorney charged the officer with murder. Later the same day, the city, under a court order, released the video of the shooting. And next week begins the much-anticipated trial of a decorated police commander, Glenn Evans, who allegedly chased a suspect into a building and shoved a loaded gun in his mouth, threatening to kill him. It has exhausted a city.

In the case of Calvin Cross, the I.P.R.A. ruled, two-and-a-half years after the incident, that “the use of deadly force by Officers Mohammed Ali, Macario Chavez, and Matilde Ocampo was in compliance with Chicago Police Department policy.” The officers were not disciplined. I.P.R.A. declined comment on the case.

When Calvin Cross was killed, his girlfriend was pregnant with their child, and so when the city settled the lawsuit brought by his family, it agreed to place the money in a trust fund for Calvin’s son. This past June, the City Council approved a settlement of two million dollars. In response to questions about the case, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department e-mailed a tellingly direct response: “Testing of the weapon at issue showed that it had not been fired and, in fact, was inoperable. Also, no fingerprints were retrieved from the gun that could be traced to Mr. Cross. Those factors led to our decision to settle the case.” The case had been referred to the States Attorney’s office for review. No charges were ever filed.

In the wake of the release of the Laquan McDonald video, Dana Cross, an ordinarily calm woman, seemed agitated. She told me, “I’m feeling that there are more cases. I’m wondering, Why did they rule mine as a justifiable shooting?”

Alex Kotlowitz, the author of “There Are No Children Here,” teaches writing at Northwestern University and is working on a book about violence in Chicago.

Editor's Picks

Back to top