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After Coverup Fails, Chicago Cop Charged With Murder Of Laquan McDonald

Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago police officer, was charged with first-degree murder for killing Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old shot by Van Dyke 16 times on October 20, 2014. It is the first time in the history of Chicago that an officer faces criminal charges for an on-duty shooting.

At a bond hearing at the Cook County criminal courthouse on November 24, Judge Donald Panarese Jr. ordered Dyke to be jailed without bond until Monday. He requested prosecutors show him video of the shooting during the next hearing, when he would consider whether to keep Dyke in jail or not.

The extraordinarily rare murder charge came after a judge ordered a horrific video of the McDonald shooting to be released on November 25. The charge also came less than a day after Chicago police chief Garry McCarthy endorsed a police review agency’s recommendation to fire Officer Dante Servin, who killed a twenty-two year-old black woman named Rekia Boyd on March 21, 2012.

Since 2010, according to journalist Sarah Macaraeg, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) in Chicago has “conducted 272 investigations of officer-involved shootings over the last five years.” Two cases, including the shooting of Boyd, were found to be unjustified.

More than 500 Chicago police officers deployed have over 10 misconduct complaints from 2001 to 2006, and still serve in the police department. There are at least six Chicago police officers, who killed people during this time span, and also have a “large volume of unpenalized complaints of misconduct.”

Van Dyke previously had 18 complaints filed against him. For example, seven years ago, Van Dyke was involved in the arrest of Eddie Nance and slammed Nance into the hood of his squad car, which tore his rotator cuffs. A jury awarded $350,000 in damages two years later. (But the IPRA declined to sustain allegations against Van Dyke.)

In the charge sheet, prosecutors recount details from the shooting. Stunningly, Van Dyke was only at the scene for 30 seconds before he fired his 9-mm caliber semiautomatic pistol. He fired 16 rounds in 15 seconds, which means he unloaded on McDonald’s body.

McDonald, as police have emphasized, had a knife, but he never tried to throw his knife at Van Dyke, lunge at Van Dyke, or do anything that would have endangered the life of Van Dyke. He was only unresponsive to commands from officers, and no other officers at the scene with Van Dyke felt the need to use force like Van Dyke did.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with Chicago ministers to convince them to help the city control protests, which are anticipated to take place after the release of the video. Emanuel called the video “hideous,” even though he apparently has not seen the video. But Emanuel, McCarthy, prosecutors, and the city of Chicago are only making these moves because they have lost the power to keep the truth of what really happened to McDonald concealed.

When the 17 year-old boy was killed by Van Dyke, Chicago police maintained McDonald had been a “crazed” person with a knife, who slashed the tires of a squad car. Police further claimed he refused to drop the knife, and there was no choice but to shoot him. And, while Van Dyke was put on desk duty while investigations took place, he was not fired or suspended.

However, in December, the shooting was not forgotten, as the University of Chicago Law School and the Invisible Institute called for the public release of video. This was motivated by witnesses, who claimed McDonald had been executed like a dog in the street.

Chicago media did next to nothing to pursue information about the shooting, but the Invisible Institute once again renewed interest in February, when the organization published details from the autopsy report it had obtained.

McDonald suffered 16 gunshot wounds. Van Dyke shot the boy in the left scalp, neck, left and right chest, left elbow, upper arm, left forearm, right upper leg, left upper back, left elbow, right upper arm, right arm, right forearm, right hand, right lower back, and right upper leg.

In April, the FBI launched an investigation into the shooting and, more significantly, the city of Chicago issued a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family. One of the terms of the settlement included a prohibition barring the family and their attorney from releasing the dash cam video of the shooting. Essentially, the city was paying the family to keep details of how their son was executed by police a secret.

But the family’s attorney, Jeffrey Neslund, told the Sun-Times, “I certainly expect that the officer will be indicted, and not just the officer, but any officer, supervisor or lieutenant who took part in covering this up and justifying what cannot be justified.”

Neslund also said Chicago detectives went to a nearby Burger King the morning after, without a warrant, and removed 86 minutes of surveillance footage, which had been on a hard drive at the fast food restaurant. He accused the detectives of obstructing an investigation.

The city of Chicago invoked the fear of riots, such as what had been witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore after cops killed Mike Brown and Freddie Gray, in order to justify keeping the video concealed.

During the summer, independent journalist Brandon Smith filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the video.

Judge Franklin U. Valderrama ordered the release of the video on November 19, and remarkably, he rejected claims from the Chicago Police Department that the release would “create a substantial likelihood of irreparable harm, affecting the integrity of the investigation and potentially depriving the involved officer(s) of an impartial hearing.” He also did not accept arguments that the video was exempt from release because it would “interfere” with “law enforcement proceedings.”

When the city of Chicago conceded it would be unable to stop the release of the video, it reached out to activist groups and community leaders to meet with them to burden them with the responsibility of keeping the peace after the video is made public. But the city of Chicago has mostly ignored police brutality throughout the past year, including McCarthy, who objected to the prosecution of Servin (who was acquitted of charges earlier this year).

Groups like the Black Youth Project 100 refused to meet with Emanuel. As Veronica Morris-Moore of Fearless Leading by the Youth declared on Fox 32 Chicago, “The mayor, while he wants to blame the officer and kind of scapegoat the officer on this, he sat on the video for a year. He allowed this to be in the dark, as he campaigned [for re-election] and told black people how much he had our backs and how much he was so devoted to young black people.”

Malcolm London of the Black Youth Project 100 pushed back against concern about violence, which politicians and media are suggesting is inevitable.

“When moments like these arise, we are more concerned about the reaction to the violence than the violence itself. We’re talking about calls for peace in a moment that is not peaceful,” London stated.

Morris-Moore added, “Nobody wants to identify police as uncivil. Nobody wants to identify this mayor, who starved community folks 34 days over a school [referring to the Dyett hunger strike], as uncivil. But the moment that black folks and young black folks become outraged and have every right to be outraged we are deemed uncivil and expected to be civil.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."