Cook County Board President and mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle has a campaign ad claiming she had a big role in exposing details behind the deadly police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
"Sixteen shots. Nine in the back. Facts that the police and city officials tried to bury. Facts that Toni Preckwinkle brought to light," a narrator says in the 30-second spot. "It was Toni who made sure Laquan McDonald’s autopsy went public. Toni, who called for the dash cam footage to be released."
McDonald was shot and killed on Oct. 20, 2014, by then Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, later convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated assault. But for more than a year after McDonald’s death the city withheld video footage of the shooting and Van Dyke remained on the force.
Preckwinkle’s ad was quickly met with a flurry of criticism from both her opponents in the mayoral race as well as community activists. They accused her of politicizing McDonald’s death and exaggerating her role in bringing the facts of the shooting to light for personal gain.
We wondered how much credit Preckwinkle could reasonably take for helping to make public two key pieces of evidence which contradicted the city’s official narrative that Van Dyke shot McDonald in self-defense.
The first claim in Preckwinkle’s ad checks out.
Preckwinkle used her authority over the Cook County medical examiner’s office to unearth the details of McDonald’s death that were being kept under wraps. She first described the autopsy results to Jamie Kalven, an award-winning writer whose Invisible Institute has played a central role in investigating police abuse cases in Chicago. Kalven broke the story behind the McDonald shooting in February 2015, revealing that Van Dyke pumped 16 shots into McDonald and nine of those struck the teen in the back.
Kalven has recounted multiple times the story of Preckwinkle’s assistance in helping him pry loose details of the McDonald autopsy.
"She agreed to see what she could find out and I was out for a run headed to Washington Park in the snow on a winter night in Chicago and Toni pulled up alongside me on 51st Street and gestured to me to get into her vehicle, which I did. She didn’t say hello, she clearly was shaken. And she said, ‘16 shots — front and back,’" Kalven later recalled for WBEZ.
However, we could find no evidence to support the second beat of Preckwinkle’s TV ad claim — that she had pressured the city to make public the police dash cam video of the incident.
The Emanuel administration resisted release of the video for more than a year after the shooting even in the face of a lawsuit filed by independent journalist Brandon Smith. But on Nov. 19, 2015, Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled in Smith’s favor and ordered the video’s release, which came five days later.
We asked Preckwinkle’s campaign for evidence that she had spoken up about the video prior to Valderrama’s order. Spokeswoman Monica Trevino sent us several articles quoting Preckwinkle criticizing city officials for having delayed releasing the footage. But the articles all made clear that Preckwinkle weighed in only after the judge did and the video release was a fait accompli.
We also checked with Matt Topic, the government transparency and media lawyer who represented Smith in his suit. Topic also provides outside counsel to the Better Government Association, but the BGA, which operates PolitiFact Illinois, had no involvement in the legal case brought by Smith.
Topic told us in an email he was not aware of Preckwinkle calling for the video’s release ahead of the judge’s order and said she filed nothing with the court to support Smith’s position in the case.
Topic was among those who called Preckwinkle out last week for inflating her role in bringing the true story of McDonald’s death to light.
"Rather than use this any further for political purposes, I'd like to hear the candidates acknowledge that there is a serious ongoing secrecy problem requiring immediate attention on day one and their specific proposals and commitments on how they are going to address it," Topic wrote in a Twitter thread.
Preckwinkle claims she was instrumental in releasing the details of McDonald’s autopsy. That much is true.
But Preckwinkle’s ad also asserts she called for the city to release the dash cam footage of the shooting. We could find no evidence of her doing so before a judge had already ordered the release.
Preckwinkle’s ad is partially accurate and leaves out important details, so we we rate it Half True.
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
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