CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago police union president Dean Angelo Sr., a third-generation officer and the father of another, has been an unyielding defender of the rank-and-file since the release of dashcam video showing white Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. Angelo, a 60-year-old former detective, is in his second year as head of the 12,000-member Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge No. 7, which he’ll lead through a federal civil-rights investigation of the force and Van Dyke’s upcoming murder trial.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Angelo pushed back against the criticism and protests aimed at police, offering insight into officers’ current mindset and even possible elements of a defense strategy for Van Dyke. Here are edited excerpts:
Q: Has Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is under a lot of criticism for delaying the video release, come down too hard on police?
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A: I think that some of the things the mayor said have been a little — I shouldn’t say ‘a little’ — have been considered by my membership to be more or less out of line. … (His conflating of the terms) ‘code of silence’ and ‘the thin blue line.’ The thin blue line has historically been the line of security and safety between the bad guys and the good guys. To give it an impression that it … identifies now with cops conspiring with other cops, I think is wrong.
Q: So you don’t think you are getting enough political support overall?
A: We’re not the best ones to support at this time. … I understand the politics. … But at some point, the rhetoric has to stop and people will have to start talking about what’s going to change. It’s not going to help by continually bashing the police.
Q: How would you describe morale among the rank and file?
A: It’s probably the lowest I’ve seen in my 35 years. It wasn’t great going into all this. … And these officers out here had nothing to do with what occurred. They’ve shown up every single day since this incident … they’ve pulled people out of burning cars, they’ve done their jobs. My concern is, they get to where they say, ‘You know what? I’ll get there when I get there.’
Q: Do you mean they’ll be less proactive in fighting crime?
A: They don’t want to be the next headline. Every stop in a lot of areas now, the first thing that people do when they see blue lights is they get their cellphone ready and they start walking toward the incident to film. It’s not that the police officers are doing anything wrong. But what if they have to put hands on a suspect? What are you going to edit out of your YouTube post that the world doesn’t see?
Q: Are officers already backing off?
A: I don’t think I could say absolutely that it’s not happening.
Q: After seeing the video, most people saw McDonald moving away from Van Dyke and concluded the shooting was clearly unjustified. What could people possibly be missing?
A: The angle of the vehicle when (Van Dyke and his partner) first get out of the car is, I think, an issue. … It’s probably not the most strategic path to put your partner in when he is on the passenger side, because you open the door and the individual (McDonald, who had a knife) is right there. You can’t withdraw (because the car’s at Van Dyke’s back). … People want to say Van Dyke was only out for two seconds. But McDonald was right there (in front of him).
Q: Should the so-called “21-foot rule” be considered — the distance police believe someone with a knife could begin to be seen as a threat to an armed officer?
A: McDonald is way closer.
Q: But isn’t he walking away from Van Dyke?
A: There’s one step (by McDonald) … toward the officers. And McDonald’s shoulder’s come to square (facing Van Dyke). It’s a nanosecond. But (it’s potentially threatening) if you think about the distance and that slight movement.
Q: None of the squad cars at the scene had audio recordings of what officers said. Critics say it shows how officers break department policy by shutting them off.
A: I believe that audio is a concern of the members in that they have a very different type of sense of humor. They tend to talk about everyone and their mother and their brother and their father and their sister when they’re in that car. And it’s their co-workers they’re talking about. They certainly don’t want that out there. … I think that when officers get more accustomed to the changes in technology, they’ll get more comfortable with it.
Q: Van Dyke had 18 civilian complaints filed against him over his career. Should that have been a reason to get him off the street?
A: Eighteen over about a 15-year career is less than two a year in some of the worst neighborhoods in one of the most violent cities in the country. Working police officers will get complaints.
Q: The U.S. Justice Department just began an investigation into racial disparities in the Chicago Police Department’s “patterns and practices.” Do you expect that to lead to major changes in how Chicago is policed?
A: I don’t know how major they’ll be, but I do know changes are coming. I don’t think the department will ever be the same.
Q: Do you think there should be more civilian oversight?
A: How much more? We (already) have Police Board civilians, Independent Police Review Authority civilians. … We have to be careful bringing in people that have no concept of what happens (on a police force) to be a decision-maker. No matter the evidence put in front of some civil libertarians, they (tend to vote) on the side of the bad guy.
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