Mur­der trial of cop puts force in spot­light

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NATION - BY SHARON CO­HEN

CHICAGO — In a Chicago court­room over the com­ing weeks, the spot­light will fo­cus on one night in 2014, 16 gun­shots, a white po­lice of­fi­cer, the death of a black teenager and an es­sen­tial ques­tion: Mur­der or self-de­fense?

Chicago Po­lice Of­fi­cer Ja­son Van Dyke faces mur­der charges in the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDon­ald, a shoot­ing cap­tured in a silent dash­cam video that stirred out­rage, up­ended pol­i­tics and fu­eled the city’s racial ten­sions. While the jury trial that be­gins Mon­day re­volves around the events of Oct. 20, 2014, it also draws fresh at­ten­tion to the prob­lems a trou­bled de­part­ment has wres­tled with for decades.

“It’s a new chap­ter but the same theme — po­lice racism, vi­o­lence and a code of si­lence,” says G. Flint Taylor, a civil rights lawyer and fre­quent critic of the Chicago po­lice.

The case has al­ready rip­pled be­yond the court­room, spurring a 13-month U.S. Jus­tice De­part­ment probe that re­sulted in a blis­ter­ing 2017 report in the fi­nal days of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. It de­scribed a poorly trained po­lice de­part­ment with a “per­va­sive cover-up cul­ture” that tol­er­ated racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and used force al­most 10 times more of­ten against black sus­pects than whites.

Craig Fut­ter­man, a Univer­sity of Chicago law pro­fes­sor, said th­ese prob­lems aren’t unique among big city po­lice forces, but they are ex­treme.

“Not that there aren’t is­sues of racism in other po­lice de­part­ments. Not that there aren’t is­sues of the prob­lems of of­fi­cers cov­er­ing for one another … and is­sues with a lack of ac­count­abil­ity in other de­part­ments, but Chicago is that on steroids,” he said.

Po­lice Su­per­in­ten­dent Ed­die John­son ac­knowl­edges mis­takes have been made, es­pe­cially in black and Latino neigh­bor­hoods, many of them be­set by gangs and gun vi­o­lence that have tor­mented parts of Chicago in re­cent years.

“There’s been a his­tory in Chicago of the po­lice de­part­ment treat­ing those par­tic­u­lar com­mu­ni­ties in­ap­pro­pri­ately. I know that we did,” John­son said in a re­cent in­ter­view with The Associated Press. He ticked off the ways that has played out: a lack of re­spect, ex­ces­sive force and “wrongly just hav­ing the at­ti­tude that young men in those neigh­bor­hoods were do­ing ne­far­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties.”

John­son said he has en­acted ma­jor changes even be­fore the po­lice de­part­ment faces a mas­sive over­haul un­der a pro­posed fed­eral con­sent de­cree filed this month in fed­eral court. Among the steps al­ready taken: ex­pand­ing the use of Tasers, en­sur­ing all pa­trol of­fi­cers have body cam­eras by year’s end, sim­u­la­tion train­ing, and mak­ing videos avail­able of po­lice-in­volved shoot­ings within 60 days of when a com­plaint is filed.

Though the Van Dyke mur­der charge is ex­tra­or­di­nary, po­lice con­tro­ver­sies have been an un­com­fort­able part of Chicago his­tory. Some of the most no­to­ri­ous in­ci­dents hap­pened long ago, but they haven’t been for­got­ten.

The de­part­ment is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked with the bru­tal im­age of an Au­gust night a half­cen­tury ago, when po­lice of­fi­cers wield­ing billy clubs pum­meled anti-war pro­test­ers dur­ing the 1968 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion. A report called it a “po­lice riot.”

And the names of Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark, two Illi­nois Black Pan­ther Party lead­ers killed in a 1969 po­lice raid, still res­onate in the black com­mu­nity. Re­ports in­di­cate the po­lice fired up to 99 shots; the Panthers shot once.

More re­cently, there have been eye­brow-rais­ing po­lice scan­dals, the ex­on­er­a­tion of death row in­mates who said they’d been tor­tured into mak­ing false con­fes­sions, and mis­con­duct set­tle­ments, ver­dicts and le­gal fees that have cost the city more than $700 mil­lion in the last 15 or so years. The city reached a $5 mil­lion set­tle­ment with the McDon­ald fam­ily with­out a law­suit be­ing filed.

“There’s no sense of ur­gency, no ef­fort … that would look into what the cause of th­ese cases is and take de­fin­i­tive mea­sures to try to stop this on­slaught,” said Lori Light­foot, a former pres­i­dent of the Chicago po­lice board and may­oral can­di­date. “It’s just dis­si­pat­ing tax­payer dol­lars. It’s un­der­min­ing the le­git­i­macy of the po­lice de­part­ment.”

John­son says im­proved train­ing is the best way to re­duce th­ese law­suits by pre­vent­ing of­fi­cers from mak­ing bad de­ci­sions.

But the city faces many more po­ten­tially big-dol­lar cases. In July, 15 men filed sep­a­rate law­suits al­leg­ing a dis­graced former sergeant had framed them. All but one had their drug con­vic­tions va­cated last year in a mass ex­on­er­a­tion; the other had a gun con­vic­tion dropped later. And about 20 con­vic­tions in­volv­ing an ex-de­tec­tive also ac­cused of fram­ing sus­pects have been tossed. In June, a fed­eral jury awarded more than $17 mil­lion to one man who served 21 years for mur­der be­fore a wit­ness re­canted tes­ti­mony that was al­legedly co­erced by the of­fi­cer.

No case is more in­fa­mous than that of former Com­man­der Jon Burge, who led a “mid­night crew” of rogue de­tec­tives ac­cused of tor­tur­ing more than 100 sus­pects, mostly black men, from 1972 to 1991, shock­ing them with cat­tle prods, smoth­er­ing them with type­writer cov­ers and shov­ing guns in their mouths to se­cure con­fes­sions. Burge was fired in 1993 and sen­tenced to prison in 2011 for ly­ing in a civil case. It was too late to charge him crim­i­nally.

“Peo­ple get mad [and say], ‘We don’t want Chicago known for Al Capone,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, an ac­tivist priest. “But Al Capone was a gang­ster on the streets. Jon Burge was a higher-up in the Chicago Po­lice De­part­ment. … That’s much more dan­ger­ous to me.”

In 2015, the city agreed to pay $5.5 mil­lion in repa­ra­tions to 57 Burge vic­tims. Taylor, the lawyer for some of the men, es­ti­mated the price tag for all Burge-re­lated cases is about $132 mil­lion.

In the last 10 years, 52 of­fi­cers in a force of 13,000 have been fired for on-the-job mis­con­duct, five for ex­ces­sive force, ac­cord­ing to the de­part­ment.


La­mon Rec­cord, right, stares and yells, “Shoot me 16 times,” at a Chicago po­lice of­fi­cer Nov. 25, 2015, as he and oth­ers march through Chicago’s Loop, one day af­ter mur­der charges were brought against po­lice of­fi­cer Ja­son Van Dyke in the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDon­ald.

Laquan McDon­ald

Ja­son Van Dyke

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