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Why did authorities say Laquan McDonald lunged at Chicago police officers?

On Oct. 20, 2014, Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald sixteen times. Police video of the shooting was made public on Nov. 24. Here's what we know about the shooting and the video that was made public a year later. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

After a Chicago police officer shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald last year, the initial information reported in local media outlets was fairly limited: A teenager armed with a knife he would not drop was shot and killed while approaching or lunging toward officers, police said. That was the story reported by the Chicago Tribune as well as the local NBCABC and CBS affiliates.

These outlets cited Pat Camden, who was acting as a spokesman for the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police and offered a description of what officers encountered. Camden told reporters that McDonald had lunged at police with a knife before the gunfire and said the teenager posed “a very serious threat to the officers.” The police department also released a statement the day after the shooting saying that McDonald “refused to comply with orders to drop the knife and continued to approach the officers.”

However, graphic video footage of the shooting released on Tuesday evening — several hours after prosecutors said that Officer Jason Van Dyke had been charged with first-degree murder — showed that the teenager was veering away from the officers, and that Van Dyke opened fire within seconds of arriving. An attorney for Van Dyke has said the officer feared for his life and for the lives of the other officers.

[Five arrested during protests in Chicago after video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting is released]

As a result, a rather obvious question emerges: Why was it initially reported that McDonald had been lunging at officers when he was shot?

In an interview Wednesday, Camden said that the information he released did not come directly to him from Van Dyke or any of the other officers who responded.

“I never talked to the officer, period,” Camden, a former Chicago police officer and department spokesman, said in a telephone interview. He added: “I have no idea where it came from. It was being told to me after it was told to somebody else who was told by another person, and this was two hours after the incident.”

Camden, who spent nearly three decades as an officer before becoming deputy director of media relations, said when he speaks about shootings involving police, he talks to union representatives who have arrived at the scene to gather information and then he relays that to reporters.

“It’s hearsay, is basically what I’m putting out at that point,” Camden said, adding that he tells reporters the information is preliminary. “It’s information that’s being given to me by a third party that gathered that information from other parties.”

The complete information about such shootings will only be available some number of weeks afterward because it takes time to complete an investigation, he said. However, he said what he releases is the “basic, fast information that you guys are always looking for.”

“There’s always the possibility that through the investigation something is going to change,” Camden said. “In today’s information age, everything has to be instant. Some things just take time.”

Camden said he has not been contacted by the state’s attorney who announced the charges against Van Dyke or any of the federal investigators who say they continue their own investigation. He also said he has not watched the video of the shooting and does not plan to, calling the incident “a tragedy on both ends.”

[A look at the complaints against Van Dyke over the years]

Questions about the suggestion that McDonald lunged at officers continued to linger this week, stretching into the hours before the video was released. Jamie Kalven, the Chicago journalist who obtained McDonald’s autopsy report, told the Chicago Reporter that someone came to him and Craig Futterman, an attorney, and said the shooting “wasn’t being vigorously investigated” and told them there was a horrifying recording of what had happened.

The head of the police union said he was asked Tuesday about the suggestion McDonald had been lunging.

“I was asked about the lunging comment, and the position that the video would not display that,” said Dean Angelo, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police and a former city police officer and detective, said in a telephone interview. “They’re correct. The lunging is not visible, there is no lunging visible in the video itself.”

Angelo said he had no idea where the comment came from, noting that there were “a lot of officers” around when McDonald was shot and that any of them could have relayed that detail.

“It could’ve been anyone on the scene at that incident,” Angelo said.


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[This story originally said that Kalven talked to the Chicago Reader, when we meant to write the Chicago Reporter.]