Exactly what Anita Alvarez knew and did in the year after a Chicago police officer's fatal shooting of a black teen has been the subject of intense scrutiny, with fallout over the case having the potential to cost her a third term as Cook County state's attorney.
But Alvarez told the Daily Herald in a sit-down interview that her actions have been misunderstood. The River Forest Democrat said:
• She decided within weeks to hand the reins of the investigation over to federal authorities and that she frequently communicated with them in the months to follow.
• A 13-month delay before bringing first-degree murder charges against officer Jason Van Dyke stemmed from the difficulty of building a strong case, not just making an arrest.
• The timing of the charges days after a judge ordered release of a video showing the shooting of Laquan McDonald was "in the interest of public safety," but she had decided on the charges weeks earlier.
Here's an edited transcript of the conversation between Alvarez and the Daily Herald editorial board.
Q. Is there anything you would have done differently in the Laquan McDonald case?
A. The best way to answer that is to run down exactly what I did do. The shooting took place Oct. 20, 2014. On Nov. 4, 2014, we were notified of the shooting by the Independent Police Review Authority and (IPRA) delivered to us a copy of the videotape of the incident. My assistants looked at it first and I was notified of it somewhere between Nov. 4 and Nov. 18. Nov. 18 is when we contacted the FBI about this particular shooting and gave the FBI the tape the next day. I made a phone call to Zach Fardon, the U.S. attorney, and on Dec. 8, Fardon and a special agent of the FBI came to my office.
The three of us spoke about the incident, the video, and what was the best way to proceed in investigating this case. We agreed to do a joint investigation with the FBI, with the FBI being our lead investigative partner. That's not the norm. But I understand the questions that the public has. ... I understand the explosive nature of this particular incident and that is why I felt what was best for this case is that we have the best investigative agency working for us, and that is the FBI.
The U.S. attorney and I agreed the FBI was going to run the investigation, which means they're the ones who are going to be getting the witnesses, doing the interviews, developing any evidence moving forward. They would be looking at the evidence in regards to federal charges, I would be looking at the evidence in regards to any state charges and what we could charge on our end. And that is how it began.
We did a meticulous investigation, a very thorough investigation. An order by the court doesn't allow me to speak freely about certain things. That's still in effect. But just so it's clear, I enlisted the FBI, I looked at this very carefully. But my people, my staff were working on this consistently; my people, my staff, were giving me frequent updates about what was happening in the case. This wasn't anything that was swept to the side by any stretch of the imagination.
Q. You describe this as an extremely complicated case.
A. It's not the same as one civilian shooting another. Police officers have the right to use force. Particularly now, with the climate, maybe people don't understand. When you're investigating these cases, you have to know the use-of-force law. You have to know the controlling case law. There's language in those cases that talks about what's in the mind of the police officer at the time he fires his gun. We're making sure that whatever evidence we're developing is going to be able to be used in court.
The other thing you're looking at is the potential defenses of the police officers. We want to make sure we're going to develop the evidence to be able to overcome any of that.
Last year there was an article in The Washington Post talking about police shootings and they analyzed 10 years of police shootings, over 1,000 cases. Only 55 officers were charged. Only 11 so far have been convicted, 22 have been found not guilty, and the others were pending. In my experience we don't win these cases as we should. The average length of investigation on those cases was 261 days.
Our goal was to build the strongest case. Justice isn't served by just making an arrest. Justice is served if at the conclusion of that trial, this offender is going to be held accountable.
Q. Are there any practices you've changed as a result?
A. We put out a statement back in April of last year, and it probably went unnoticed, saying there was a joint investigation going (with federal authorities). What I plan on going forward is being more transparent and putting on my website a list of cases that are pending. Every prosecutor across the country is experiencing what we're experiencing in Cook County.
The issue of police shootings is No. 1 on everyone's list of what can we do differently. (Suffolk County State's Attorney) Dan Conley in Boston does something I plan on doing: When he finishes an investigation he issues a white paper where he explains his decision-making in a particular case.
I charged an on-duty Chicago officer with first-degree murder in a shooting. That has never happened. I feel strongly that the right charges were brought. And I didn't make my decision in 24 hours. That is something we were leading up to as the year went along, and I think that somehow that message has been lost.
Q. Why did you wait until after filing nominating petitions to charge officer Jason Van Dyke with murder?
A. I can tell you it had nothing to do with my petitions to file. They were filed because that was the date set by the state board of elections. When I found out the videotape (of the shooting) was going to be released I called Fardon. He felt he wasn't ready to end the investigation. I told him I couldn't wait. In the interest of public safety I knew I had to go forward.
Normally, when we do joint investigations we conclude the investigation at the same time. But I said, 'I have to come out and announce my charges.' We felt strongly we had a good-faith basis to bring the first-degree murder charge. He told me he wasn't ready to end their side of it. That's why I made the announcement at the time that I did.
Q. In the wake of the release of the videotape showing the McDonald shooting, there were calls for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and you to resign. Have you considered it?
A. Absolutely not. You know, when everything transpired, I'm human, and so you hear these things, you hear these nasty things. It does affect you. But I also know I did my job. And I didn't do anything wrong. I participated in a very meticulous and thorough investigation with the U.S. attorney and the FBI. Civilians can express their opinions and protest, and I have no problem with that as long as everybody's peaceful.
What's disheartening is some of the (Chicago) aldermen who are vocally criticizing me voted for that settlement and they didn't want that video to be released. Now that I'm in the middle of re-election they choose to criticize me.
Q. Did the McDonald family come in to talk with you?
A. Unfortunately, Laquan was a ward of the state and it took a while to find his family. I do know his mother actually did not want the videotape released and she's been pretty quiet about all of the proceedings. The important thing is, when you talk about justice, my whole goal from day one was justice for Laquan and his family.
Q. Did you talk to the mayor about the case?
A. I didn't have any contact with the mayor on this case. I talked to him the day of my news conference. By that time (former police) superintendent Garry McCarthy had already informed him what I was going to do. I did not have any conversation with him through the (process) of this investigation. I did not call him, nor would I. He did not call me. ... The implication is somehow we were in cahoots and it's furthest from the truth.
Q. Do you have a difficult relationship with Toni Preckwinkle, and how has that affected the job you do?
A. It's clear to me that she wants her own person in this position. I think the question needs to be asked by the general public: Do they want a state's attorney who is controlled by the county board president? If it's not Toni's idea then it's not a good idea, is my experience. I'm not controlled by the county board president.
And I think the other question that needs to be asked is my budget has been cut every year. ... I ask for more money to expand my conviction integrity unit, my community justice center (and a number of other programs) and I get the door slammed in my face. I have a job to do and (Preckwinkle) has a job to do. I'm a professional prosecutor, and I'm not going to be bullied by her or anybody else.