Trial puts focus on troubled force
White officer faces murder charges in ’14 killing of black teen
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.
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.
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.