Jason Van Dyke’s conviction on murder charges in the killing of Laquan McDonald offers a moment of accountability for the Chicago police, especially on behalf of black Chicagoans who, as a Justice Department investigation found, have been subjected to decades of unconstitutional and biased policing and excessive force.
At stake was Chicago’s image in the eyes of the nation and the rest of world — as a place of equity and justice, or a place of lawlessness, racism and official impunity.
For a moment, when the verdict was announced Friday afternoon, this city of nearly 3 million stood still. The fact that legal accountability is being exacted upon a police force – and by extension City Hall – which have both so long and so consistently escaped accountability left Chicagoans stunned, delirious, and some still angry. But mostly a palpable sense of relief washed over the city.
Unlike so many times before, in this case justice worked. But not without the help of journalists, street activists, and extraordinary public scrutiny. As scores of protestors streamed into the streets to vent following the verdict, it was impossible to know whether this marks a turning point for race and policing, or if it is simply a fluke.
During trial, Van Dyke’s presumption of innocence fell away like so many dead leaves. Van Dyke said he shot McDonald after he turned at him and made a threatening motion with his knife. The video of the incident revealed no such motion. In closing arguments, defense attorney Daniel Herbert pointed to a frame in the video where he claimed McDonald was raising his knife. In fact, experts identified that as the frame showing the first bullet hitting McDonald, according to special prosecutor Joseph McMahon.
Herbert painted a picture of a drug-fueled “rampage” on McDonald’s part, and Van Dyke referred to the 17-year-old’s “bugging eyes.” McMahon went through the run-up to the shooting showing that other cops and witnesses saw McDonald repeatedly avoiding confrontation, fleeing when an unarmed civilian threw a cellphone at him and walking away from police at every opportunity – just as he was when Van Dyke stepped out of his squad car and started shooting.
An animation based on the dashboard video recreating the incident from Van Dyke’s point of view failed to show any threatening gesture, and perhaps more tellingly, a consulting psychologist revealed that Van Dyke had said that McDonald needed to be shot, based solely on radio reports, before Van Dyke ever appeared on the scene.
In fact, McMahon argued, Van Dyke was not shooting in response to a real threat. Other officers had tracked McDonald for ten minutes without shooting him, and an officer equipped with a taser was on his way (and arrived just half a minute after the shooting ended). Van Dyke, according to McMahon, “created this confrontation” and ended up “shooting this kid because Laquan McDonald was not respecting the authority of the Chicago Police Department.”
McMahon pointed out that Van Dyke continued shooting for over 12 seconds while McDonald was on the ground, with every shot making his survival less likely.
Juries are notoriously reluctant to convict police officers. They’re the “good guys” who are protecting us against the “bad guys” – a simplistic paradigm that we hear invoked time and time again, sometimes to justify very bad things. In this case, at least, the value of Laquan McDonald’s life was affirmed, and in that perhaps we can take a measure of hope that things are changing for the better.
Laquan’s death has already had significant consequences – a Justice Department investigation exposing the racism of the Chicago Police Department, a consent decree spelling out a series of reforms. An upcoming trial will seek to expose a conspiracy by officers to cover up the truth about the shooting, though it will not reach the department brass and the accountability system and elected officials who played a role in that conspiracy. A new film promises to go further in revealing the extensive police effort to shut up witnesses to the shooting.
If many of the protesters took no comfort in this verdict, perhaps that’s because it’s hard to forget the silence of the police force, the City Council, and the 5th floor of City Hall in this tragedy.
Laquan McDonald’s death was unnecessary, but it was not in vain. It is up to all of us – from voters and activists to officers who know that legitimacy and trust is crucial to their own efforts – to press for dramatic changes in the way our communities are policed and to put a stop to more unjustified murders by those entrusted to protect and serve.