Van Dyke murder verdict called ‘watershed event’

Jason Van Dyke in court Friday, Oct. 5. – Screenshot of WGN live newsfeed.

Staff Writer

The Jason Van Dyke conviction “is a watershed in the effort to establish police accountability and a regime of public safety in Chicago where people are treated equally,” said Jamie Kalven, the journalist who helped break the story in a February 2015 Slate magazine exposé.

While the case was narrow — the jury only decided whether Van Dyke murdered McDonald — Kalven said that the verdict, “that a white police officer can be found guilty of the murder of a black Chicagoan,” is “virtually unprecedented and has great public meaning.”

Van Dyke was found guilty last week of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, one for each of the shots he fired into the 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. He faces decades in prison and is the first Chicago police officer to be found guilty of murder in nearly a half-century.

The case has drawn international attention after the subsequent police cover-up was exposed, laying bare Chicago’s sharp racial divide and chronic issues with police misconduct. Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would not seek reelection in its wake.

“The verdict came down in the context of a robust, ongoing process of reckoning with the need for institutional change,” Kalven said. He noted that Chicago’s last mayoral election occurred after the news was out about the shooting and cover-up, but the campaigns went on without any discussion of the case. “This time around,” he said, “the issues that this case revealed and laid bare are going to be central to our public life going forward.”

Ald. Sophia King (4th) helped organize a march up King Drive from 47th Street to the Victory Monument at King and 35th with local clergy and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who represents Washington Park.

In a statement, King said that the verdict brought some closure but “it has been a long road for black and brown people.” She said there is work to do but called the jury’s decision “a step in shifting the narrative.”

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) released a statement, saying that McDonald’s death “woke our city to the injustices that have occurred all too frequently.”

“While Jason Van Dyke will be held accountable for his actions, we must all commit to seeking a fundamental chance in transparency and accountability from the law enforcement and our City,” she said.

An email released to the University of Chicago community recognized “the range and depth of emotions” drawn forth by the shooting and trial and announced that it would maintain the security of its campus and neighboring community through its Department of Safety and Security, support for peaceful demonstration and counseling for students and support issues. A reflection space was open Friday evening for students at the Center for Identity and Inclusion, 5710 S. Woodlawn Ave.

In a joint statement, Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said they urged cooperation “as public servants, police and members of the public, adding that “the effort to drive lasting reform and rebuild bonds of trust between residents and police must carry on with vigor.”

Cook County Board President and mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle released a statement after the verdict was released. “While nothing can make up for the senseless loss of young life, I am grateful that there is some justice for Laquan McDonald,” she said. “This is an important indictment not only of the actions of an individual but of the code of silence within the police department. We cannot have safe communities if we do not have police force accountable to all communities.”

State Sen. Kwame Raoul (13th), the Democratic nominee for Illinois Attorney General, said that “our criminal justice system has done its job, but the work of healing and reform is just beginning” and urged that the case be catalyst for law enforcement reform even beyond the consent decree brokered by incumbent Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Chicago Police Department (CPD).

“The work towards that end does not stop with this verdict, nor with the consent decree that this case brought about. I appeal to communities throughout the city and state to come together towards improved safety, accountability and mutual respect,” said Raoul.

Outgoing State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (25th), the House Majority Leader, told the Herald that “the jury clearly decided that Officer Van Dyke needed to be accountable for his actions, and the 16 findings of guilt, I would imagine, brings to the McDonald family serenity, peace and the feeling that justice has been done.”

Curtis Tarver, Currie’s likely successor in the Illinois House of Representatives, said he was praying for Chicago and the McDonald family. “We still have a lot of work to do to address the structural issues of this tragedy, and I am dutifully committed to fighting for justice,” he said.

State Rep. Christian Mitchell (26th), who represents the western part of Hyde Park in Springfield and is the interim executive director of the Illinois Democratic Party, issued statement expressing gratitude for the “measure of solace” the verdict brings to Chicago and McDonald’s family but acknowledging the “broader structural forces that must be addressed if we’re to bring about true justice.”

“The struggle continues,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (1st), who represents most of Hyde Park–Kenwood in Congress, said the verdict “shows that law enforcement will be held accountable for their egregious and unjustified use of force.”

“While this conviction will not bring back Laquan McDonald, it serves as a strong reminder that no one — including law enforcement — is above the law,” Rush said. He called for healing and law enforcement reform, charging Chicagoans “to rise to the moment and show the country and the world how we will channel our pain and anger into a constructive force.”

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (2nd), who represents East Hyde Park, said that, “while no verdict can bring Laquan McDonald back to his family and friends, we have seen that justice can be delivered to victims and their families.”

“Many of my family members are in law enforcement, and I know the great responsibility and sacrifice that comes with wearing the badge,” Robin continued. “But that doesn’t mean we should grant automatic deference to law enforcement in deadly force cases. This case must be a catalyst for real reforms at CPD and other police forces around the country.”

Illinois Fraternal Order of Police State Lodge President Christ Southwood issued a statement: “This is a day I never thought I’d see in America, where 12 ordinary citizens were duped into saving the asses of self-serving politicians at the expense of a dedicated public servant. This sham trial and shameful verdict is a message to every law enforcement officer in America that it’s not the perpetrator in front of you that you need to worry about, it’s the political operatives stabbing you in the back. What cop would still want to be proactive fighting crime after this disgusting charade, and are law-abiding citizens willing to pay the price?”

Had Van Dyke been acquitted, Kalven suspects that there would have been “deepening despair in large parts of the city that there could ever be meaningful change in how black and brown neighborhoods are policed.”