“Sixteen shots! Sixteen shots! Sixteen shots!”
Persistent cries of justice for Laquan McDonald were answered on October 5, 2018, when Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery, one for each gunshot, in the 2014 shooting of the seventeen-year-old black teenager from the West Side of Chicago.
On the evening of October 20, 2014, McDonald was shot sixteen times and killed at the intersection of Pulaski and 41st. A widely circulated and highly controversial video showed Van Dyke shoot McDonald multiple times during a confrontation between the teen and several police officers.
In fact, video evidence and transparency were crucial to the final verdict of this case. The video was released only after the tireless efforts of reporters and civil rights lawyers, against the wishes of various politicians and law enforcement officials. Incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez obtained the video on November 4, 2014 and initially refused to reveal its contents to the public, instead obstructing the investigation at every turn. She persistently defended her office’s decision, saying the case was complicated and that its public release would compromise the integrity of her investigation. Starting in 2015 and throughout his reelection campaign, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel aided in withholding the video from public view, until a judge mandated that it be released. In March 2015, the Chicago Tribune even filed three distinct Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Chicago Law Department, all of which were ignored. Other attempts were made to access the video, but progress on the issue stagnated until freelance journalist Brandon Smith filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department (CPD), compelling them to release the video after his fifteen FOIA requests were repeatedly denied. On November 19, 2015, Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ordered the city to release the video.
The decision exerted an undeniable force on Chicago and its denizens, sending shockwaves through the political and social fabric of the city. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired. Alvarez was ousted by enraged voters. Emanuel declined to seek a third term. The longstanding distrust between communities of color and law enforcement was thrust into the national spotlight, inciting a Justice Department investigation into the CPD and a wave of reforms.
The investigation ushered in sweeping changes to the CPD, which admitted that it had long neglected the constitutional rights of residents, particularly African-Americans. The City of Chicago now releases police shootings captured on video within sixty days. A new use of force policy has been published and implemented, requiring officers to wear body cams and carry Tasers. The most significant outcome was a consent decree, which Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan agreed to in early September 2018. The court order, overseen by US District Judge Robert Dow Jr., mandates a series of reforms of CPD’s policies, some more specific than others. The proposal calls for law enforcement officials to work to investigate anonymous complaints and prohibits officers from driving local residents through potentially dangerous neighborhoods. Officers would be encouraged to avoid arresting people over minor offenses and require permission from supervisors to make arrests related to certain infractions.
This marks unfamiliar territory for our nation. Timothy Loehmann, the police officer who shot and murdered twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, was never criminally charged. He was even hired part-time afterwards to serve on the police department in Bellaire, Ohio—until he quit just days after to appease thousands of protesters. Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot and murdered Philando Castile, was acquitted of all charges brought against him, including second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. The video of the fatal incident, released to the public only after the verdict, shows a frantic police officer shoot Castile in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. The Van Dyke verdict therefore marks a new development in the prosecution of police officers in officer-involved shootings, as well as the first time in nearly half a century that a Chicago officer is convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting.
Although this represents progress, questions linger. Nationally, will this decision represent a watershed moment for criminal justice and police brutality? Or will this be relegated to a mere historical anomaly?
The crowd of nearly two hundred gathered outside the courthouse in Chicago cheered the announcement the day the verdict was released. Following news of the decision, activists peacefully marched down Michigan Avenue, their chants of “guilty” reverberating through the streets. Musicians Chance the Rapper and Common tweeted their support for the ruling. McDonald’s family received the verdict with relief, and were thankful for the closure it brought. McDonald’s great-uncle spoke publicly on behalf of the family, saying, “Now we can go home tonight and sleep knowing that Laquan is at peace and knowing that the people that harmed him unjustly will face whatever they have to face."
While the guilty verdict was praised by many Chicagoans, others urged cautious optimism, expressing doubts the victory would yield immediate change. In August 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois and Black Lives Matter (BLM) Chicago released organized statements in response to the agreed-upon consent decree. BLM criticized the agreement as insufficient to address “the reign of lawlessness and brutality that we’ve endured under this Police Department.” Both groups recommended additional reforms, proposing a policy that encourages officers to use the “least intrusive response appropriate under the circumstances as reasonably understood by the officer at the time” in dealing with minor offenses. The activists also called for the department to mandate the creation of a policy regarding on-foot pursuits, situations that often result in shootings or the use of force.
The verdict also enjoyed its share of outright opposition. The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police condemned the jury’s decision, calling it “shameful” and a “disgusting charade.” The official statement from State Lodge President Chris Southwood read, “This is a day I never thought I’d see in America, where twelve ordinary citizens were duped into saving the asses of self-serving politicians at the expense of a dedicated public servant.”
Regardless of public opinion on the verdict, one fact is indisputable. Those 14.2 seconds on October 20, 2014 will forever reshape the landscape of American law enforcement and its criminal justice system. Drastic reform measures will be implemented to combat the widespread utilization of excessive and unreasonable force. Under intense public scrutiny, the national law enforcement community will be challenged to mend its historically precarious and at times vitriolic relationship with underprivileged communities. The verdict that ultimately propelled Chicago towards a transformation of its criminal justice system has instigated an American reckoning with our national identity.
The road ahead will not be easy. Chicago remains—akin to many other large American cities today—“a tale of two cities,” with a sharp divide between those who have and those who have not. A stark racial and socioeconomic divide lingers between the predominantly white residents of the North Side and the predominantly black and Latinx populations of the South and West sides. The death of McDonald epitomizes the most damaging aspects of this dynamic. However, the guilty verdict, rendered by a nearly all-white jury save for one African-American juror, presents a beacon of hope—progress that should be lauded and capitalized upon.
Led by a new crop of passionate, driven activists and civically-engaged citizens, Americans have reason to be hopeful that significant societal progress will be made. Indeed, it is not a matter of if, but when. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”