Former Detective David March, Chicago Police Officer Thomas Gaffney and former Officer Joseph Walsh appear at a pre-trial hearing at Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago.
Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak (Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool File)

In what’s being called an “unprecedented” case, three Chicago cops accused of lying to protect one of their own in the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald will begin their trial today. They are facing criminal “code of silence” charges—the first Chicago cops to ever do so.

Former Detective David March, former Officer Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney—who still serves on Chicago PD—face charges of conspiracy, obstructing justice and official misconduct for allegedly filing false police reports writes the Chicago Tribune. But unlike their colleague, Jason Van Dyke, who was found guilty of second-degree murder two months ago after shooting McDonald 16 times, the three officers will have a judge, not a jury, decide their fates.

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As NPR reports, police reform advocates say this trial carries greater implications than Van Dyke’s, getting at the heart of a broken police system in which fraternity trumps accountability.

“In some respects, I think this is more important, because if we didn’t have people willing to cover up for bad officers, we wouldn’t have bad officers,” says Christy Lopez, an advocate who worked within the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice until last year.

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Prosecutors allege that the other officers on the scene of the 2014 shooting—none of whom fired their weapons at McDonald, who was carrying a small knife—gave nearly identical false statements about what happened that night, backing up Van Dyke’s claim that McDonald charged at him, and then, after being shot, continued getting up to try to attack him.

It wasn’t until more than a year later when footage from a police dashcam was released after mounting pressure from activists and the press, that those claims were firmly established to be false.

That dashcam shows Van Dyke shooting McDonald as he faced away from the officer—clearly posing no threat. It also shows Van Dyke continuing to unload round after round into McDonald’s body as he lay crumpled on the ground, unable to get up.

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“Not a single police officer on the scene who wrote up a summary of what they saw said anything that can be reconciled with the video,” Michael Robbins, one of the attorneys representing McDonald, told NPR, adding that the move to cover up McDonald’s death was “instinctual” and “immediate.”

But the officers’ attorneys claim all they did was file paperwork with a few mistakes—and that it isn’t a crime to file an inaccurate police report, writes the Tribune.

The defense also claims that the meeting between officers hours after McDonald’s shooting was common practice after police shootings—which, frankly, shouldn’t make anyone feel better, especially given how departments around the country have come under increasing scrutiny for their conduct.

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In fact, just yesterday, BuzzFeed released a report on the former head of New York City’s Department of Investigations, who claimed he was fired after publishing “damning reports about problems on the police force.” This included accounts about NYPD officers dodging punishment after being accused of lying in official statements. The practice is so prevalent—and so persistent in courtrooms—that NYPD officers coined a name for it: “testilying.” In the case of the NYPD, officers were frequently promoted, rather than punished, after being accused of giving false statements.

It remains to be seen what message will be sent to Chicago police officers and their peers around the country during the course of March, Walsh and Gaffney’s trial.

The bench trial will be heard and decided by Cook County Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson, USA Today reports.