October 20, 2014: The Police Murder of Laquan McDonald


WHAT HAPPENED?


On October 20, 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was fatally shot by Jason Van Dyke, a Chicago Police officer. Van Dyke claimed that Laquan was "behaving erratically" while walking down the street, and refused to drop a knife he was carrying. The internal police report corroborated the story, and Van Dyke wasn't charged with a crime.


However, when the court ordered the police to release dash cam footage of the shooting over a year later, it showed that Laquan had been walking away from the police when he was shot. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder that day. On October 5, 2018, he was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.


Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan requested a civil rights investigation into Laquan's death, and the overall activities of the Chicago PD. The report determined that the police had a culture of "excessive violence", especially against minorities, and that they had a lack of training and supervision. City officials signed a consent degree for a plan to improve their precincts.

THOSE INVOLVED

Laquan McDonald was born on September 25, 1997 and was from the 37th Ward of Chicago. At the time of his death, he had a job working after school for the Youth Advocate Program. Teachers described him as "very respectful and reserved" and not aggressive at all. He was an average student, earning A's and B's in some courses, and C's in others.


After his death, his blood and urine was examined and it was determined that he had PCP in his system, a drug that would have accounted for his erratic, bizarre behavior cited by the officer.


Jason Van Dyke was born in 1978 in Hinsdale, Illinois. He got his bachelor's in criminal justice from St. Xavier University, and had been working for the Chicago Police Department for 14 years at the time of the shooting. He has a wife and 2 children.


Since 2001, nearly 20 citizens had filed complaints against the officer, but no disciplinary action was taken. 10 complaints were about use of excessive force, and at least one was for verbal abuse when he used a racial slur.


According to CNN, Van Dyke was one of about 12,000 officers with 20 or more complaints. One officer still on staff has 68 complaints lodged against him.

THE MURDER


At around 10 pm on October 20, 2014, police were called to investigate reports of a young man carrying a knife and breaking into vehicles. When the officers confronted the young man, Laquan McDonald, he used his knife to slice the tire of one of the patrol cars and damage its windshield. At this point, Laquan began walking away from the police while they asked him to drop the knife.


Video footage shows that Van Dyke began advancing on Laquan while his back was turned, walking away, when the first shot was fired. He spun and fell to the ground. He lay on the ground, knife still in hand, and Van Dyke shot additional shots into the dying teen. In total, he fired 16 shots in less than as many seconds.


Laquan was taken to the hospital, but was pronounced dead shortly after.


The initial 400-page report of the incident prompted a ruling of justifiable homicide. (Because they lied.) The reports left out how many times Van Dyke shot his weapon, and over-exaggerated that Laquan was acting "crazed", even claiming he lunged at officers while refusing to drop the knife. One report claimed that he raised the knife up and pointed it directly at Van Dyke. He claimed he was afraid he would charge at him or throw it at him.


Overall, the events of the night were seriously exaggerated in an attempt to make the homicide look justifiable to avoid legal action taken against Van Dyke.


The autopsy revealed that Laquan had been shot in the neck, chest, back, both arms, right leg, and his scalp. 9 of the 16 shots were in his back, clearly indicating he was not lunging or charging toward the officers, and the others were likely while he was laying on the ground. Based on the medical examiner's review, his death was ruled a homicide.


When the dash cam footage was initially released, it did not contain audio, which is a big no-no, as dash cam footage should always record audio. While city officials blamed it on a "technical problem", it was later revealed that the equipment was intentionally damaged.


Additionally, a nearby Burger King could have captured footage of the event, but during the time of the shooting, there was an 86 minute gap in the recording. The manager of the restaurant claimed that on the night of the shooting, 5 officers gained access to the footage and erased it.

LEGAL PROCEEDINGS


Before the video was publicly released, reporters noted a slew of inconsistencies between what the police were telling the media and the autopsy, on top of eyewitness accounts of the shooting.


Brandon Smith, a freelance journalist, along with William Calloway, a community activist, requested a copy of the video under the Freedom of Information Act. Their request was denied, and they continued filing lawsuits and appeals. Eventually, the video was released on November 24, 2015 more than a year after the shooting, that showed Laquan walking away from the barrage of gunshots.


Once the video footage was reviewed, the original ruling that the homicide had been justified was re-reviewed. It was noted that Laquan never lunged at everybody, and that he was not swinging the knife around erratically. Horrifically, it shows that he had his backed turned, walking away, when Van Dyke began to shoot him. The same day the video was released, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.


He pleaded not guilty to the charges against him on December 29, 2015. His attorney said that he feared for his life because of the protests. I imagine people did not feel super bad for him.


Had he been charged with first-degree murder, he would have faced 20 years to life. It was the first time in nearly 35 years that an on-duty Chicago officer was charged with first-degree murder for an on-the-job fatality.


On October 5, 2018, Van Dyke was found guilty of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm for each of the shots fired on Laquan.


"The day of his verdict not only was my heart ripped out of my chest, but he wouldn't be there for my seventeenth birthday which made me fall into a depression," Van Dyke's daughter wrote. She said that she wanted everyone to get to know the real Jason Van Dyke, and not the media portrayal.


"My family has suffered more than I can even put into words," his wife wrote, saying their daughters had their father ripped away. She said he had no malice or ill intent on the night he took Laquan's life, and asked that the jury find it in their heart to consider the punishment he already endured as enough to get him through the rest of his life.


He was sentenced to only 6.75 years in prison.


I understand that his daughters don't totally comprehend the weight of what happened. They are young, reportedly they were bullied in school, and of course, their hearts are broken to not have their dad around. But his wife saying that their family has suffered "more than I can even put into words"? While her husband is alive and a child, around her child's age, is dead because of him? After being shot 16 times when no one's life was in any sort of danger?


Laquan's family was disappointed in the verdict, saying that the sentence reduced him to a "second-class citizen" and suggested that there aren't laws there to protect Black men in the United States.


Additionally, on June 27, 2017, 3 former Chicago police officers were charged with misconduct, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice for helping cover up the murder. David March, the lead detective, Joseph Walsh, Van Dyke's partner, and another officer Thomas Gaffney were all acquitted of the cover up charges.

AFTERMATH


Protests began in November of 2015 after the release of the video that showed not only was Laquan killed wrongfully, but that his killer had walked free for over a year because of a coverup. Protests continued through December with a 16-hour sit in at the Cook County building, representing the 16 shots that killed Laquan, and continued all the way through March.


On December 1, 2015, the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force was created to provide oversight to reduce excessive force and racism within the Chicago PD.


There were lots of resignation calls after the shooting. Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired, as he knew about the dash cam video within weeks of the shooting. Though he stripped Van Dyke of his police powers and was unable to do anything else due to the IPRA investigation being underway, McCarthy was still fired.


Many challengers called for State Attorney Anita Alvarez's removal. She had also viewed the footage just weeks after the shooting, and failed to act. She refused to resign, leading to the 16-hour sit in mentioned above. She argued it was premature to release the dash cam footage, which is obviously bananas. She lost her bid for reelection in March of 2016, losing to Kim Foxx who was running on the platform of criminal justice reform.


Laquan's killing also came just months before mayor Rahm Emanuel was up for reelection. The delayed release of the video, the city's $ million award given to the McDonald family just weeks after his death, and his firing of McCarthy prompted many to believe he was involved in the cover-up. He claimed he had not seen the footage until it was publicly released, and refused to resign. He left office in May of 2019.


The Department of Justice issued a "scathing report" in January of 2017 noting a variety of issues within the Chicago PD, ranging from excessive force, racism, lack of training and lack of oversight. The city and the DOJ signed an agreement to work together to ensure improvements throughout those areas.


There is even more to this story, the cover-up even deeper than what I captured here, but man... it hurts and disappoints and enrages me that there are so many stories of Black people being killed by police that there are some I haven't even heard about. This 17-year-old kid was shot 16 times while walking away from a police officer, his death was covered up for nearly a year, and, a pretty uncommon occurrence, his killer was found guilty of his death. But I've never heard this story before.


Some would think Laquan McDonald deserved death. He was on drugs. He was acting erratically. He used his knife to cause damage to the patrol cars, and refused to drop his knife when asked. But guess what? Cops are just that... cops. They are not judge or jury, and they are certainly not executioner. There were at least 8 other cops there, none of which fired their weapons. Jason Van Dyke shot a kid walking away from him 16 times. It doesn't matter if he committed crimes, or didn't comply. The punishment for disobeying police orders is not murder. He was not a threat to Van Dyke's life, which is the only reason he would have to shoot and kill him. That reason didn't exist.


If the gravity of one's crime was grounds for police murder, how come serial killers are taken in calmly in handcuffs? School shooters? Rapists? Laquan's crime was disobeying police orders, property damage, and drug use. You shouldn't die for that. And given the amount of racism in the police force in general, but especially discovered in Chicago, if he was white, he probably would still be alive.


Van Dyke's wife, Tiffany, has made a variety of statements supporting her husband. She said that it was made into a race issue because her husband was white, and that he was not racist and that there was no way the shooting was racially motivated because he is close with her Black brother-in-law! Never mind the fact that there were complaints against him for using racial slurs, but whatever. It seems she has never expressed actual, genuine sympathy for Laquan's death. He was just the Black kid ruined her husband's life.


Everything about this story enrages me. But more than anything, I'm sad another Black kid didn't get a chance to grow up because of the police. He deserved a future, and that was stripped from him.


RIP, Laquan McDonald. We will keep fighting for Black lives every day until this doesn't happen anymore.

REFERENCES:

https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/heart-ripped-out-of-my-chest-letters-from-jason-van-dykes-wife-children-beg-for-leniency-in-new-court-document/5469/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Laquan_McDonald

https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2019/01/19/laquan-mcdonalds-family/

https://heavy.com/news/2019/02/tiffany-van-dyke-jason-wife/

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