Trial puts fo­cus on trou­bled force

White of­fi­cer faces mur­der charges in ’14 killing of black teen

The Dallas Morning News - - Nation - Sharon Co­hen, The As­so­ci­ated Press

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 a mur­der charge in the killing of 17-yearold Laquan McDon­ald, a shoot­ing cap­tured in a silent dash-cam 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.

Van Dyke con­tends he shot McDon­ald 16 times be­cause he feared for his life as the teen swung a knife at him. The video — re­leased 13 months later af­ter a court or­der — shows McDon­ald hold­ing a knife at the side of his body, about 15 feet from Van Dyke, walk­ing away from him and other of­fi­cers who had re­sponded to a re­port that McDon­ald was try­ing to break into ve­hi­cles. The teen had punc­tured the tire of a squad car.

“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 coverup 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, says 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,” he says, “but Chicago is that on steroids.”

His­tory of mis­takes

Po­lice Su­per­in­ten­dent Ed­die John­son ac­knowl­edges that 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,” he said.

John­son says he has en­acted ma­jor changes even be­fore the 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 that all pa­trol of­fi­cers have body cam­eras by year’s end, sim­u­la­tion train­ing, and mak­ing videos of po­lice shoot­ings avail­able 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.

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.

Re­cent scan­dals

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. 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. 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 al­legedly co­erced by the of­fi­cer.

No case is more in­fa­mous than that of for­mer Cmdr. Jon Burge, who led a “mid­night crew” of de­tec­tives ac­cused of tor­tur­ing more than 100 sus­pects, mostly black men, from 1972 to 1991. 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.

What lawyers say con­nects Burge and many other egre­gious mis­con­duct cases is a code of si­lence that al­lowed abuses to con­tinue for years, even decades.

Kevin Gra­ham, pres­i­dent of the Chicago po­lice union, in­sists that’s a myth. “I know of no po­lice of­fi­cer who’s go­ing to cover up for a crime an­other po­lice of­fi­cer does,” he says.

Jon Lo­evy, a lawyer whose firm has won at least $300 mil­lion in ver­dicts and set­tle­ments in po­lice cases over 20 years, says pol­i­cy­mak­ers haven’t paid enough at­ten­tion to the dam­age caused by all these in­ci­dents. “No­body has spent the po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal in the past to re­in­force nec­es­sary changes,” he says.

2015 File Photo/The As­so­ci­ated Press

La­mon Rec­cord (right) yelled, “Shoot me 16 times,” at a Chicago po­lice of­fi­cer dur­ing a protest af­ter mur­der charges were brought against Of­fi­cer Ja­son Van Dyke.

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