Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on October 20, 2014. Almost exactly four years later, Van Dyke, 40, was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery – a count for every bullet fired at McDonald. On January 19, 2019, Van Dyke was sentenced to almost seven years in prison.
He was the first Chicago police officer convicted of murder in nearly half a century, and one of the few ever convicted in the killing of a black man. While that’s a small victory, there’s another issue that has police department critics upset. On January 18, the day before Van Dyke’s sentencing, another judge acquitted three officers accused of trying to protect Van Dyke and cover up the crime.
On the night of his killing, Laquan McDonald was reportedly behaving strangely. He was holding a knife with a 3-inch blade while walking down the street. Just before 10 p.m. that night, police were called with reports of a man with a knife. When the officers found McDonald, he proceeded to use the knife to slice a tire on the police car and damage the windshield.
Police told him to drop the knife, but McDonald ignored them and walked away. At that point, officers called in for Taser backup. However, Van Dyke gained on McDonald as the young man walked away, and shot him. That initial shot had McDonald on the ground, where Van Dyke fired 16 bullets into him at the rate of about one per second.
Van Dyke had been on the scene less than half a minute and began shooting virtually as soon as he exited his police vehicle. The other officers on the scene said they saw no reason to use force. Police dash cam videos were not released at this time.
When a judge ordered the release of the police dash cam videos more than a year after the killing, the city of Chicago erupted in protests. The graphic video showed Van Dyke firing even though McDonald lay on the ground, not moving. Even before Van Dyke’s trial, repercussions from McDonald’s killing resulted in the police superintendent’s firing and the prosecutor’s loss of his job via the ballot box.
The Justice Department investigated and found a “pervasive cover up culture” in the Chicago Police Department. Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would not seek a third term shortly afterward, and the case likely affected his decision.
Excessive Force Complaints
At the time of the murder, Van Dyke had been a Chicago police officer for 13 years. During that time, he was the subject of 20 citizen complaints, eight of which involved excessive force and one that resulted in a $350,000 settlement with the city.
The Cover Up
Two months after Van Dyke was found guilty, the trial of the three police officers allegedly involved in the cover up began. They faced charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy. Prosecutors claimed the three tried to stop investigators from learning the actual circumstances of McDonald’s death by submitting false reports.
The men claimed McDonald was shot after he swung his knife at the police, and that Van Dyke kept shooting because the teenager was trying to get up after the first shot. The trial of the three officers also revolved around the video, but the judge in their case said the vantage point of various officers may have accounted for why their statements did not accord with the events captured on video. A judge excusing clear police lies in a wrongful shooting - it seems like the judge was part of the cover up, does it not?
The officers’ defense lawyers said they did not write false reports, but merely wrote down what they witnessed. All blame was placed on the dead victim, but unfortunately, that ruse worked in this situation as we see play out time and time again. Sometimes it seems like there is no justice when police break the law.