"A Precious Public Resource": Chicago After Laquan McDonald

 /  Feb. 17, 2016, 8:23 p.m.


On the frigid evening of January 8, University of Chicago students, faculty, and community members crowded into the warm dining room of the Quadrangle Club to witness retired police chief Daniel Isom and three journalistsMary Mitchell, Jamie Kalven, and moderator Kate Grossmandiscuss the aftershock that has rocked Chicago following the shooting of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald on October 20, 2014. Mitchell is a columnist and editorial board member at the Chicago Sun-Times who has written on topics ranging from Natalie Cole to protests and social justice. Kalven is a writer for the Invisible Institute and a human rights activist; his public records request led to the release of the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office's autopsy report in the McDonald case. Isom is the former chief of police of St. Louis and the director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety; he was deeply involved in managing the fallout from the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. McDonald’s horrific death has called policing tactics into question in Chicago and across the country, sparking a national debate about related issues such as mental health, social services, freedom of information, and the role of the public in police and judicial affairs.

Around 10 p.m. on the night of McDonald’s death, police officers were called to investigate a young man who was apparently wielding a knife and breaking into vehicles in a trucking yard at 41st Street and Kildare Avenue. In the altercation that followed, McDonald used his three-inch blade to slash at the tires of a police car and damage its windshield. He walked around erratically and refused to drop his knife when ordered to do so. Six seconds after exiting his car, Officer Jason Van Dyke opened fire, shooting McDonald sixteen times. The incident report claimed that McDonald was attacking Van Dyke when the policeman opened fire, but a video from a police car’s dash camera shows that McDonald was walking away from the officers when Van Dyke got out of his car and that Van Dyke shot McDonald repeatedly as he lay on the ground. In October 2014, Emanuel was staring down the barrel of a difficult reelection bid the upcoming February, and evidence suggests that he or his top aides knew of the inaccuracies in the initial police report and allowed the video to be suppressed until it was released to the public on December 4, 2015. Critics have suggested that he feared the release of the video would hurt his reelection campaign, and Chicago has been shaken by a series of protests calling for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

444 days after the shooting, the event’s panelists assembled in the ornate dining room to discuss the events of that evening and their implications. While they agreed that the mayor could have handled the situation with greater candor and swiftness, they felt that the problems facing the Chicago Police Department extended far beyond the mayor as an individual. When moderator Kate Grossman asked whether Emanuel needed to go, Mitchell responded, “You really need to say everybody needs to go. Because the system failed. The media failed. The police department failed. The lawyers failed. The family failed. This was a breakdown from top to bottom.” Kalven agreed, saying that “[Emanuel] inherited this, he didn’t create this mess.” Kalven went on to point out that it would be wonderful if Laquan McDonald’s death were a singularity, tangled up in a conspiracy in City Hall. If the issue were simply one of a corrupt mayor, it would be much easier to resolve. In his view, however, Chicago is confronted with a deeply ingrained societal dilemma that will take years of concentrated effort to fix.

This was one of the greatest points of discussion during the panelhow policing could be made more secure and trustworthy in light of decades of tensions between police and minority citizens. As a former chief of police, Isom provided insight on how public perception has affected communities’ relationships with their police departments. He suggested that while shootings involving police officers have actually decreased in Chicago over the last five years, this has had little impact on the relations between communities and the officers that police them. He pointed out that “the community is not looking at numbers from year to year. They’re looking at patterns of behavior. And when they see the same patterns of behavior from officers in the community, whether it goes up or down, they still are impacted by that behavior. And those stories are carried throughout a community.” Kalven, the writer and activist who secured the release of the video, described how this vicious cycle of policing plays out in difficult communities: if a few police officers are brutal, the community begins to fear and distrust them. When an incident occurs, community members are less likely to call the police and are more likely to seek justice by their own means. When the police investigates the resulting crimes or disturbances, community members are less likely to cooperate, rendering the police more belligerent and less effective. The community members are therefore less trusting of the police. In the view of activists like Kalven, this feedback loop cannot be allowed to continue.

For his part, Isom suggested a number of ways that the American policing system needed to change in order to foster greater cooperation and trust between the police and the community. Fundamentally, he argued for a change in a culture that he feels has become too focused on the primacy of the police themselves. “We’re here to protect and serve, right?” he asked. “So is that your first priority? Or is your first priority to actually protect yourself?” He argued that the first thought in a police officer’s mind should be, “ . . . I’m here to sacrifice myself for you.” Isom emphasized the fact that it is the primary duty of the police to protect the people they serve, even the ones they may be pursuing or arresting. Sometimes, he said, this might mean letting someone get away or backing off to ensure the safety of everyone in the situation.

“Police departments are not occupying forces. We are not coming into communities to control behavior,” Isom declared. This authoritative mindset is dangerous for both the police and the community members: it fosters resentment and division rather than unity of purpose. Additionally, Isom was firm in his belief that the police must be better trained. If communities’ relationships with police are to change, officers must be able to meet new expectations: the police officers of tomorrow must be knowledgeable about nonviolent conflict management, leadership, community involvement, and, most importantly, appropriate and timely use of force. The last ingredient Isom listed for a safe and trusting relationship between police and public was openness and transparency. People are much more likely to rely on the processes of policing if they understand how these processes work. This is an element that is entirely absent from the current mode of policing, as relations between officers are governed by a cultural and structural code of silence that punishes policemen if they break ranks or “rat out” their fellow officers. Police must be loyal to the communities they protect, rather than the institution that employs them.

However, students’ and community members’ anger during the question and answer session suggests that establishing police-community trust will prove difficult. After Isom listed a number of ways the police could become constructively involved in the communities they monitor, public policy student Cosette Hampton stepped up to the microphone and remarked, “Yeah, or maybe [they should accept] the fact that black people should be allowed the same human rights as white people.” She expressed her frustration at the public’s continuing focus on reforming the police department, lamenting the fact that much of Chicago’s budget is spent on the police force (the police department does indeed consume the most money of any city of Chicago expenditure). Hampton suggested that many of these funds should be reappropriated and invested in the communities that face such struggles with crime and police relations. She lamented the fact that “we’re consistently funnelling more money into an institution that clearly doesn’t work.” When Hampton stepped away from the mic, the room resounded with applause.

After the panel, Hampton spoke with the Gate about her reaction to McDonald’s murder. Like many others in Chicago’s black community, she felt a mixture of sadness and outrage upon hearing of McDonald’s death. “I think I heard about his killing when I heard that there was a video of his killing . . . I think my first thought was ‘here we go again’ but then I guess it was ‘what are we going to do now?’”  

For some, the Laquan McDonald shooting has brought the very existence of the police department into question. Hampton describes herself as a police and prison abolitionist, and lamented that McDonald’s life could have been spared if not for the rampant aggression that has characterized relations between Chicago’s police and black community for decades. She advocated for “not addressing [violence in black communities] as an issue of inherent violence of black people, but something that came out of poverty, situations where you don’t have access to the resources you need, mental health crises, like what we saw with Quintonio LeGrier recently, not being properly responded to. I think that if we take the money that we use . . . In Chicago, I don’t know if you know this, but 40 percent of the operating budget goes to policing, so think about how much money that is. If you could take that and make resource centers, healthcare centers, mental health development centers, it would be much more effective to deter crime than police would be. So that’s I think the whole idea for police abolition and prison abolition, seeing people as victims of state violence and perpetrating violence because of that, and seeing people as non-disposable.” Hampton’s belief that Chicago’s black communities would be better off monitoring themselves, without the intervention of the police, speaks volumes of the depth and persistence of the conflict between communities and the people who monitor them.

Hampton expressed discomfort with the timbre of the conversation about policing in Chicago. In her view, the rhetoric of rebuilding trust between police and communities implies “that the CPD is a legitimate system, and I think that you can only build trust between two type of communities if both are legitimate. I think we need to be critical in our legitimization of the CPD.” She feels that the CPD’s behavior in the neighborhoods it polices robs it of legitimacy, and therefore “there shouldn't be a conversation about rebuilding trust between the community and the police; instead, there should be community control of the police and then the abolition of the police because of this constant distrust that they’ve created in the community.”

Hampton’s passionate response to Laquan McDonald’s death reflects the feelings of many Chicagoans in the wake of this tragedy. While opinions differ, it was clear that the Quadrangle Club dining room was full of citizens who were outraged that a seventeen-year-old could be gunned down in the street and were eager to work to create a society in which nobody of any color need live in fear of those who are supposed to protect them. As Jamie Kalven made clear, “The Laquan McDonald incident, sort of the occasion for this conversation and many others, is an infinitely regrettable event that we wish had not happened. It now, at this point, is also a precious public resource. You know, this narrative, this story, this situation. And we have an obligation to learn everything we possibly can from this.”

The image featured in this article was taken by Julius Pak. 

Kaeli Subberwal

Kaeli Subberwal is a fourth-year majoring in political science and minoring in physics. She has spent her summers working in local journalism at the Summit Daily News and national journalism at HuffPost, and doing archival research through the College Summer Institute in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In her free time, Kaeli enjoys reading, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and doing crossword puzzles instead of studying.


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