A white Chicago police officer has been charged with murder in the shooting death of a black teenager, just one day before a deadline by which a judge has ordered the city to release a squad-car video of the incident.
Veteran officer Jason Van Dyke was indicted on Tuesday on a first-degree murder charge in the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times. The officer was denied bail at a hearing in Chicago’s main criminal courthouse hours after a state prosecutor, Anita Alvarez, announced first-degree murder charges against him.
City officials and community leaders have been bracing for the release of the video, fearing an outbreak of unrest and demonstrations similar to what occurred in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities after young African American men were slain by police.
The judge ordered the dash-cam recording to be released by Nov. 25 after city officials had argued for months it could not be made public until the conclusion of several investigations.
Several people who have seen the video say it shows the teenager armed with a small knife and walking away from several officers on Oct. 20, 2014. They say Van Dyke opened fire from about 15ft and kept shooting after the teen fell to the ground. An autopsy report says McDonald was shot at least twice in his back. It also said PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, was found in the teen’s system.
Van Dyke is the first on-duty officer to be charged with murder in nearly 35 years while working for the Chicago police department.
Since the death of McDonald, the Chicago police union and the lawyer representing the officer have maintained that he felt that McDonald presented a serious danger to Van Dyke and other officers.
“I can’t speak to why the [other] officers didn’t shoot,” the lawyer representing Van Dyke, Daniel Herbet, told reporters on Friday, according to the Chicago Tribune. “But I certainly can speak to why my client shot, and it is he believed in his heart of hearts that he was in fear for his life, that he was concerned about the lives of [other] police officers.”
Van Dyke was the only officer of the six present that night who fired his gun out as the teen was allegedly walking away, according to lawyers representing McDonald’s family.
Since the incident, Van Dyke has been on paid desk leave while both federal and state investigations into the incident took place.
According to a freedom of information request by the Chicago Tribune, the veteran officer has had at least 15 complaints filed against him while working in high-crime neighborhoods, for accusations including using racial epithets and pointing a gun at an arrestee without justification.
In 2007, the officer was involved in a traffic stop in which he and his partner were found to have used excessive force on a man with no prior convictions, leading to a $350,000 award for damages in the case, the Tribune reported.
Chicago police also moved late Monday to discipline a second officer who had shot and killed an unarmed black woman in 2012, in another incident causing tensions between the department and minority communities.
Superintendent Garry McCarthy recommended firing officer Dante Servin for the shooting of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd, saying Servin showed “incredibly poor judgment” even though a jury had acquitted him of involuntary manslaughter and other charges last April.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel called together a number of community leaders Monday to appeal for help calming the emotions that have built up over the McDonald shooting.
Some attendees of the community meeting said afterward that city officials waited too long after McDonald was shot to get them involved.
“You had this tape for a year and you are only talking to us now because you need our help keeping things calm,” one of the ministers, Corey Brooks, said after the meeting.
Ira Acree, who described the meeting with Emanuel as “very tense, very contentious”, said the mayor expressed concerns about the prospect of any demonstrations getting out of control.
Another minister who attended, Jedidiah Brown, said emotions were running so high that there would be no stopping major protests once the video was released.
The fears of unrest stem from longstanding tensions between the Chicago police and minority communities, partly due to the department’s dogged reputation for brutality, particularly involving black residents.
Dozens of men, mostly African American, said they were subjected to torture at the hands of a Chicago police squad headed by former commander Jon Burge from the 1970s to the early 1990s, and many spent years in prison. Burge was eventually convicted of lying about the torture and served four years in prison.
The two ministers said black people in the city are upset because the officer, though stripped of his police powers, has been assigned to desk duty and not fired.
“They had the opportunity to be a good example and a model across the country on how to improve police and community relations and they missed it,” Acree said.
The Chicago police department said placing an officer on desk duty after a shooting is standard procedure and that it is prohibited from doing anything more during the investigations.