Amid the din of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, the country barely noticed a significant event that took place on October 5 in a nondescript courtroom in Chicago. A jury of 12 Chicagoans convicted a police officer, Jason Van Dyke, of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery—one charge for each of the rounds he fired at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on October 20, 2014.
The conviction of an on-duty police officer, let alone a murder conviction, is an anomaly in an era in which law-enforcement expects impunity and almost always receives it. The horrific dashboard-video footage (warning: graphic) combined with the compelling father-son testimony of Jose and Xavier Torres—the only two civilian witnesses to testify—persuaded the jury where the carefully rehearsed testimony of Van Dyke’s fellow officers did not.
The Van Dyke trial offers activists concerned about police violence and police-community relations a glimmer of hope. The trial marks a potential turning point at which jurors, prosecutors, and the public at large rejected the law-enforcement narrative and declared that respecting the police does not necessitate abandoning accountability when their actions require it.
The difference in this trial is summed up in the post-verdict statements of the jurors. One, identified only as a white woman, explained, “It seemed kind of like [Van Dyke] was finally giving the play after they had been rehearsing with him for weeks. [He was] staring at us, trying to win our sympathy when he testified.” Another juror, a white male, said they were unconvinced by the Chicago Police Department testimony: “We just didn’t buy it.”
Too often the actions of law enforcement, especially when they end in fatalities, are considered above questioning. The officer declares that he or she perceived some threat, as Van Dyke did here, and thus the use of lethal force was appropriate. In this trial, jurors—and the prosecutors who brought this to trial—injected some sanity into the process.
Is a stoned man with a three-inch knife walking away from officers an imminent threat? Do police have no options between doing nothing and emptying the magazine of their pistols? Must the assertion that a police officer perceived a threat go unchallenged? To all these questions, the jury answered “No.” That is a landmark statement from the jurors.
A police officer has not been convicted of homicide in Cook County in over half a century. Over the past decade, almost every high-profile instance of a suspect’s death at police hands—Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile, and far too many others—has resulted in the endorsement of law enforcement’s version of events and a lack of prosecution or conviction for the officers involved.
What made the Van Dyke trial different?
First, the office of the Cook County State’s Attorney showed the political will to prosecute the case in a legitimate trial rather than one tilted to favor Van Dyke. This contrasts with the half-hearted case brought against the officer who shot Terence Crutcher (who in 2017 was found not guilty of manslaughter) or, worse, the refusal to prosecute at all. Recently the Seattle police were exonerated by a “review board”—an expedient stacked with reliably pro-law-enforcement community figures to create the impression of oversight—of shooting 20-year-old Tommy Le because they “thought” he was holding a knife. It was a pen. Officers claimed he was attacking them; the autopsy showed he was shot twice in the back.
Second, the “blue wall of silence” was pierced by prosecutors’ insistence on charging Van Dyke’s fellow officers with attempting a cover-up. Witnesses at the scene were not interviewed; an officer made a clumsy attempt to confiscate video footage from nearby security cameras; and officers present reported that McDonald had risen from the ground to attack them further, despite the video evidence that he was killed instantly. Accepting such blatant lies as truth simply because a uniformed officer utters them is neither necessary nor in the public interest.
The decision to hold officers accountable for false statements in a separate trial meant that Van Dyke’s colleagues were careful in their testimony at his trial. Rather than endorsing his fictional version of events wholeheartedly, they testified as instructed by their own attorneys with their own interests in mind. Accordingly, the jurors were exposed to what could best be described as lukewarm endorsements from other officers of Van Dyke’s version of events.
It is only one trial. It is a young man whose death cannot be undone. But this example demonstrates that where the will to prosecute and carry out a fair trial exists, the public can hold police accountable. The standard line that any decision made by an on-duty officer must be accepted at face value—a benefit of doubt extended to no other profession—failed to appeal to jurors in this case. It helped that it was a diverse jury, representative of the city in which the trial was held.
Through July 31 of this year, 720 people have been killed by police in the United States. That’s on pace to exceed last year’s lamentable total of 1,194 people. Some of these people were armed, hostile, and clearly acted in a way that justified a lethal response. But many were not. This is a uniquely American problem, one the public may be ready to evaluate in something resembling an objective light.
When I was a youth, my father, a Republican prosecutor, suffered an enormous backlash from law enforcement (and an electoral defeat) when he asked, after an officer shot and killed a mentally disturbed man, why the officers couldn’t have taken the unarmed, staggering man into custody by throwing a net or blanket over him.
Nearly 30 years later, I still struggle to understand what was so ridiculous about that question. The goal is to resolve problems with the minimum force necessary, not to justify whatever amount of force is used with the existence of a potential threat.