‘It Was a Murder’
Laquan McDonald verdict divides Chicago police
He was clearly exhausted. A supervisor from one of the Chicago Police Department’s specialized gang units had spent two hours detailing an extraordinary career. He had spent more than two decades working in the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago. Undercover drug buys, dangerous foot pursuits, running wires, drug busts. He’d done it all.
The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized by the department to speak with the media.
But he was fed up with how politicians and CPD brass had reacted to the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video. The dash-cam video from 2014 depicts a young black man being shot 16 times by officer Van Dyke as the young man veered away from the officer. Many of these rounds tore into McDonald’s body as he laid crumpled on the street.
“Nobody’s even getting out of their car anymore,” the supervisor from the gang unit told me. He said that officers were afraid that any form of proactive policing might lead to a physical confrontation with suspects and that if captured on video, the CPD brass would simply “throw them under the bus.” Our interview came only a few months after the 2016 release of the video.
In many ways the supervisor mirrored the rhetoric I’d heard again and again from officers across the department. Culturally, he squarely fit the profile of many CPD officers. He is a veteran, white, grew up middle class in one of Chicago’s mainly white neighborhoods populated mostly by city workers, is somewhat conservative and was raised with a deep admiration for the CPD.
He and I actually share the same background. That’s why I was floored by what happened next.
He began talking about the Laquan McDonald shooting video again. He then paused mid-sentence, looked me squarely in the eyes and asked, “Well, what do you think happened?” Initially, our shared cultural background made me think I’d insult him with an honest answer.
But during the interview he expressed deep empathy for the people living in the most violent neighborhoods of Chicago. He said the best officers were the ones who built relationships with the communities they serve. And decried the police abuse he’d witnessed over the years. He spoke with derision about an officer who used to “beat guys while they were handcuffed.”
The officer put the blame squarely on the CPD brass for failing to “provide any training” to officers after the academy, and the department’s propensity to cover-up abuses.
With this in mind, I decided to go with an honest answer. “I think it was unjustified,” I said.
“No,” he said with a look of piercing anger, “it was a murder.”
Anyone following the coverage of the recent trial of Jason Van Dyke would know that the supervisor’s opinion is in the minority among CPD members.
On just a few days ago Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm—one for every bullet fired into the body of McDonald. Many Chicagoans were relieved, but the CPD union described the trial as a “sham.”
The union representative added that the 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 ready to pay the price?” the union representative added.
This statement largely represents how officers reacted in the comments second of the popular Second City Cop blog. The blog allows officers to comment anonymously, and is hugely popular among department members. So much so that the recent Justice Department investigation into CPD misconduct used comments from the site as evidence of rampant racism among many in the department.
To analyze the comments on the blog I randomly selected 100 comments related to the Van Dyke verdict. I then coded the rhetoric into 12 categories.
The most common reaction to the trial was a call for “depolicing.”
“If you haven’t seen the writing on the walls over the past three years, then maybe this verdict will wake you up,” one user wrote. “Don’t do anything, if you’re young enough leave this job, if you don’t have that option start a collection of DVDs and sit in your car and watch movies. Give these people what they want, or else face the consequences of losing your life or your freedom.”
At top — Chicago police recruits. U.S. Army photo. Above — the Laquan McDonald shooting. Chicago Police Department capture
“Depolicing” rhetoric was present in 26 percent of the comments.
Similar to the “depolicing” rhetoric, 12 percent of the comments expressed worry that both cops and citizens would now be less safe because of the verdict.
“So if this situation happens again do officers just stand around and wait until a citizen gets injured in some way and then take action?” a user wrote. “This way at least an officer can say he was defending someone’s life. Or are we supposed to just taze him and hope that doesn’t kill him?”
The second most common reaction was to call the trial unfair. This accounted for 21 percent of the comments. “The case was doomed from the get go. Pick your poison — asshole judge or police-hating jury.”
Others were blamed as well. Fourteen percent of the commenters blamed politicians, nine percent blamed the CPD brass, three percent blamed liberals, two percent blamed the media and five percent blamed a poor defense team.
Some of the most virulent comments were aimed at the brass and politicians.
“Fuck the city of Chicago and fuck the police department. if you think the dept has your back, you a damn fool. They don’t give a damn about you the brass only cares about themselves. Each signed off on the shooting as justified, and nobody was called to testify for JVD. Fuck you, [CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson] and your half-assed statement.”
Eight percent noted a rumor going around the department that some officers actually celebrated the verdict, and nine percent expressed sympathy for Van Dkye and his family.
“Please notify us of any fundraising or account information on behalf of Jason’s family. With all the O.T. made from this tragic event, we owe his family some support. We are Jason Van Dyke. Jason Van Dyke is us. We, just like him are a product of Chicago policing and experiences, O.T. and side-jobs worked, countless hours of sleep lost, mental and emotional stresses of this job; culminating into one event that night, where Jason, a police officer, chose to end the countless possibilities that remained available to L.M. We are Jason Van Dyke. Our families are his family.”
Finally, just three percent actually agreed with the conviction.
“How can you say that the verdict was a disappointment? There was only one verdict to be had, based on that video. I’m actually surprised that the jury did not go for first-degree murder and official misconduct, as well. Officers have to understand that the days of making every police shooting ‘justifiable’ are over.”
Where policing in Chicago goes from here is anyone’s guess. A 2017 Justice Department investigation found that the CPD “engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.”
This finding has led to a court enforced consent decree aimed at reforming the department. But the legitimacy of these changes is clearly deeply in question among officers. Most mainly fear for their jobs and freedom. But many, like the gang unit supervisor, are exhausted by inept brass who have for so long covered up abuses.
“I wasn’t there that night,” the supervisor told me, referring to the McDonald shooting. “But I know what was said. ‘Make this right!’ I can just hear it.”