Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke arrived at the Cook County courthouse at 26th and California on Monday to face the charges against him: murder, aggravated battery, official misconduct.
Certain facts of the case are not in dispute: Van Dyke pulling up in a marked SUV to the scene of a police encounter with 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on the night of Oct. 20, 2014. McDonald, armed with a knife, disobeying orders to stop walking. Van Dyke firing his weapon 16 times, killing McDonald.
The trial of Van Dyke will play out as several trials. We may learn more about that night. We’ll certainly learn more about the Chicago of 2018, a city on edge. Among those in the dock:
A police officer is on trial for first-degree murder. A jury will determine whether Van Dyke had the legal right to use deadly force against a teen with a knife. If those were the parameters, this would be a high-profile case because every police-involved shooting is a serious matter. Murder charges against an officer are rare. But there’s more to this case than the question of Van Dyke’s culpability: McDonald’s death laid bare a chronic failure of accountability within the Chicago Police Department that had eroded community trust.
CPD is also on trial. Not literally, but the alleged behavior of Van Dyke and other officers that night exposed the crisis of confidence in Chicago policing. Early accounts had McDonald lunging at officers, yet police dashboard cameras recorded him walking away from officers. For more than a year City Hall kept the recording from public viewing. The images of a white cop shooting an African-American teen 16 times, firing even as McDonald lay on the street, were so disturbing that the city agreed to a $5 million settlement before the McDonald family filed a lawsuit. Citing the shooting, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a Civil Rights Division investigation that excoriated CPD for a pattern of excessive force and an entrenched code of silence that shielded cops from accountability for wrongdoing.
City Hall and the mayor are on trial. Again not literally, but politically. Emanuel’s handling of the case and his management of CPD were set to become major issues in his re-election campaign, if he hadn’t decided two weeks ago against seeking a third term. In the aftermath of the shooting, Emanuel’s preference would have been to quarantine that night, to treat McDonald’s death as another isolated incident of alleged police misconduct. The video, when finally released, mooted that strategy. The case forced Emanuel and City Hall to accept Police Department reforms, including a new system of oversight, new training, new body cams for officers. This spirit of reform should get locked into a consent decree now under negotiation; it will give a federal judge a supervisory role. Van Dyke’s trial and those reforms will help determine Emanuel’s legacy.
The role of the judge. Judge Vincent Gaughan, presiding in the fifth-floor courtroom of the Leighton Criminal Court Building, is experienced, tough-minded and, incidentally, sometimes cantankerous with the media. News organizations challenged Gaughan in court over access to documents, but now the focus turns to his handling of an incendiary case and protecting Van Dyke’s right to a fair trial. If you want to witness his demanding approach, the trial is televised and livestreamed, while Tribune reporters are filing dispatches and live tweeting.
Chicagoans, too, are on trial. Prosecutors argue that Van Dyke used lethal force when it was not necessary; police could have arrested McDonald. Defense attorneys say the police officer feared for his life and took legal steps to end a violent confrontation. Interpretations of the video, the rights of an officer under Illinois law and other factors should lead jurors at the end of this case to render judgment. How will Chicagoans respond? The verdict won’t please everyone. It may bring joy and relief to some, disappointment or anger to others. We expect emotional responses and trust they’ll be peacefully expressed.
However this trial ends, the process of fixing the Chicago Police Department will continue. Chicago will be a better city for it.
As Van Dyke’s trial starts, prosecutor counts out each of 16 shots that hit Laquan McDonald »
How the paths of Laquan McDonald and Jason Van Dyke crossed that fateful night »
Interview: Mayor Rahm Emanuel discusses the effects of Laquan McDonald shooting »
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