Wednesday had been marked as the day Chicago officials had to release graphic dashcam video of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald’s final moments and — because of that — the day the city could erupt.
It didn’t happen quite that way, though the city is still simmering.
Protests, while filled with tension and passion, didn’t lead to clashes with authorities or massive disruptions. One reason is that Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer who shot McDonald 16 times on a city street, was charged on Tuesday with first-degree murder.
Still, the fact that it took 13 months for such action to be taken bothers many. And the video itself — which came out shortly after Van Dyke appeared in court for the first time — stoked the anger even more.
It shows McDonald running, then later walking down the middle of a street. He heads toward some police cars with flashing lights, then veers away. It’s then that he appears to spin around and falls, brought down by a barrage of bullets. There were 16 shots fired over 15 seconds, all by Van Dyke.
The officer’s lawyer, Daniel Q. Herbert, has admitted the video is disturbing. But talking to CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday, he insisted that it doesn’t tell the full story — including that his client “truly was in fear for his life, as well as the lives of his fellow officers.”
“Video by nature is two-dimensional and it distorts images,” Herbert said, claiming Van Dyke has given him a better sense of his own perspective at the time. “So what appears to be clear on a video sometimes is not always that clear.”
Others don’t see it that way, though. Yes, McDonald had a 3-inch knife and, according to toxicology tests, had PCP in his system. Yet authorities haven’t indicated he’d threatened anyone, nor was he within 10 feet of anyone at the time the shots rang out. Several other officers were at the scene with Van Dyke, and none of them fired any shots.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said Van Dyke had been on site less than 30 seconds, and out of his car for six seconds, when he started shooting.
“The officer in this case took a young man’s life,” Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said Tuesday. “And he’s going to have to account for his actions.”
Protesters point to larger police-race issues
Beyond the troubling nature of the video, the fact Laquan McDonald wasn’t the first black man to be shot dead by a Chicago police officer was another reason that protesters took to the streets Tuesday night. At one point, they seemed to form a circle and chanted names of others they said were also victims of police violence in the city.
“Unfortunately, this has been a persistent problem in terms of excessive force being used by police and the murder of black people with impunity by the police,” said Jay Travis, who has lived on Chicago’s South Side for 43 years. “So we’re out here for love of our city. We’re out here pushing for change.”
This demonstration took place against the backdrop of a city that’s struggled mightily to contain violence of all kinds.
Chicago began being called the murder capital of the United States back in 2012, after it registered 503 homicides, more than any other city. It didn’t get much better, with the FBI’s 2014 statistics showing 411 killings — more than the 333 in New York and 260 in Los Angeles, two cities with higher populations.
Then there’s the national conversation over African-Americans feeling targeted by police. The deaths of people like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York — both after confrontations with white police officers — have spurred protests nationwide under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter.
Last month, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said this movement has made a hard job even harder for law enforcement.
“It is having an impact on the safety we want to see throughout the city of Chicago,” he said, CNN affiliate WBBM reported.
Emanuel, though, didn’t defend Van Dyke, who is white. He said this was one officer who violated “the highest professional standards” that thousands of Chicago police live up to every day.
“Rather than uphold the law, he took the law into his own hands, and it’s now up to the justice system to hold him accountable,” the mayor said. “But his actions are in no way a reflection of the dedication and professionalism that our police officers exemplify every day.”
Why did it take 13 months for charges?
City officials haven’t been immune to criticism themselves.
There are questions about what was done to address the 20 allegations against Van Dyke compiled by the Police Accountability Clinic at the University of Chicago’s Law School. They accused the officer, who’d been on the force for 14 years, of things like verbal abuse and excessive force. Not once did the police department find fault with Van Dyke.
There’s also the fact that a jury decided against Van Dyke and his partner for using excessive force in July 2007 against a black man, awarding that man $350,000. (A judgment was later entered for $180,000. A separate lawsuit against Van Dyke, also for excessive force, was dismissed.)
Authorities have had access to the dashcam video of McDonald’s death ever since it happened. While Van Dyke’s lawyer said the black teen had “stabbed at the windshield of a squad car” and “popped the tire” of another police vehicle, the video doesn’t show him close to stabbing any person.
Paul Callan, a criminal defense attorney and CNN legal analyst, expressed shock that it took so long to release the video. Even more surprising to him is how anyone who saw the footage — and that includes prosecutors — could have taken so long to file charges against Van Dyke.
“It looks pretty simple: The man was down on the ground (and) shots were fired into him. He wasn’t threatening the officer when the shots were fired,” Callan said. ” … So for it to take this long to reach a decision that a crime had been committed … is surprising.”
Alvarez, the state’s attorney, conceded Tuesday that a judge’s mandate to release the video by Wednesday moved up the timing of the announcement about charging Van Dyke with first-degree murder. But she insisted it’s didn’t dictate the decision.
“Maintaining public safety is my No. 1 job,” Alvarez said while laying out other details on the case. “And I do not want the public to view this video without knowing this very important context that, with these charges, we are bringing a full measure of justice that this demands.”
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