1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Elusive official accountability in Chicago

Milan GagnonNovember 28, 2015

Protests continue in Chicago after the release of a police video showing an officer killing a teenage boy last year. The city spent a long time trying to avoid holding the police accountable.

Image: Reuters/A. Nelles

The protests that brought Black Friday commerce to a halt in Chicago this week were about more than the death of just one teenager: They were just the latest step in a decadeslong struggle for police accountability in the city.

Thursday was the second Thanksgiving without Laquan McDonald, who would have been 18 this year, but was shot 16 times by a white officer on October 20, 2014. He was one of 70 people killed by Chicago police from 2010 to 2014 - the most of any US city, though the Midwestern metropolis has only about one-third as many people as New York and 1.2 million fewer than Los Angeles.

Footage of the teen's death was released by court order this week, and Officer Jason Van Dyke was belatedly charged with his murder. It was a series events that even saw US President Barack Obama weigh in with a pre-Thanksgiving message on Facebook. "Like many Americans, I was deeply disturbed by the footage of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald," Obama wrote. "This Thanksgiving, I ask everybody to keep those who've suffered tragic loss in our thoughts and prayers, and to be thankful for the overwhelming majority of men and women in uniform who protect our communities with honor. And I'm personally grateful to the people of my hometown for keeping protests peaceful."

Obama, who entered politics as a civil rights lawyer and professor of constitutional law, first took public office in 1997 as a state senator from the 13th district of Illinois, representing Chicago's South Side, where the police presence is most heavily felt. His path to the presidency owes much to Chicago, and he remains close to the municipal leadership: Rahm Emanuel, Obama's first chief of staff, assumed the city's mayoral mantel in 2011.

In spring, shortly after Emanuel's re-election, the city council approved a payout of $5 million (4.7 million euros) to McDonald's family after their attorney saw the video, provided that the footage, which contradicts the official account in every frame, not surface. The sum was just 1 percent of the half billion dollars Chicago has paid to victims of police misconduct in the past decade.

The video's belated release earlier this week comes as over a year of protests have cast new light on the deaths of men and children of color at the hands of police in the United States. A murder charge like Van Dyke faces has often proved elusive in such cases, though in Baltimore several officers will go on trial next week after a young man died in police custody in spring.

From 2010 to 2014, 70 people were killed by police in ChicagoImage: Getty Images/J. Lott

'Expectation of impunity'

On October 20, 2014, the night Officer Van Dyke killed McDonald - and that part was never up for dispute - the teenager was reportedly behaving erratically, burglarizing automobiles and slashing tires with a knife in the Archer Heights neighborhood of Chicago. The first police to arrive at the scene called for the assistance of an officer with a Taser, or nominally nonlethal stun gun, to subdue him. What they got instead was Van Dyke, who within 30 seconds of arriving had fired 16 shots into the teenager, 14 of them while he was already on the ground.

Legitimized by the Chicago Tribune, the next day's official account said that McDonald had menaced police, refused to drop the knife and lunged at them with it. Officers defended themselves, the newspaper reported, shooting the teen, once, in the chest. "When police tell you to drop a weapon, all you have to do is drop it," Pat Camden, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, which advocates for law enforcement autonomy, told the newspaper. It was eventually the freelance journalist Jamie Kalven who set the events in motion that would lead to a murder charge for Van Dyke, but it appears that from the beginning the police had bet that their closeness to the local press would ensure that the story would go reported as rendered - that the public wouldn't ask questions and that city officials wouldn't make trouble.

"Police departments and police unions have used this support to their advantage by creating the narrative of such controversial events and by counting on the support of colleagues who were eyewitnesses as well as the mass media," said Themis Chronopoulos, a lecturer in American history and culture at the University of East Anglia. "City administrations depend on these police departments to maintain law and order; city officials feel that antagonizing them may compromise this goal. In most cities, police departments and police officer unions are very powerful entities. They have the ability to destabilize city administrations, especially ones that attempt to seriously investigate and reform police department practices."

Days after McDonald's death, the city turned over dashboard footage to prosecutors. But the public did not see what happened until this Tuesday - and only by court order. The video plays like the intro to the 1950s and '60s American police procedural "Dragnet." Lights flash and from a first-person perspective we drive the streets of southwest Chicago; a siren whines at low volume. It's like this for roughly six minutes, until Van Dyke and an unnamed partner arrive at the scene of what would become his crime. The rest of the video is a matter of seconds, barely 30 of them, and shots: 16 of those. Officials have tried to frame the incident as the result of the actions of a single rogue officer, but there were half a dozen at the scene when McDonald was killed and over the course of the year not one of them came forward publically with the facts. Over the course of the year, not one of them was charged. It has even since emerged that the manager of a nearby Burger King told a grand jury that officers may have erased footage recorded by security cameras outside the fast food joint.

"The experience of impunity gives rise to the expectation of impunity," said Markus Dubber, a professor of law at the University of Toronto and the author and editor of several analyses of policing in North America. "What's interesting is what effect the recent demonstrations have had on police behavior - and the behavior of prosecutors and other public officials, including police chiefs and mayors," he added. "The appearance of an increased willingness among prosecutors to charge police officers with serious offenses, including murder, may in fact strengthen the esprit de corps, making it less likely that officers come forward to report abuse and perhaps for officers to get involved at the scene, during and after the use of massive force, as in the Chicago case, for fear of becoming implicated in a future prosecution based on video footage, recorded by the police, a bystander or a security camera."

For the first time in 35 years, a Chicago officer faces a first-degree murder charge for an on-duty fatality. The period includes scores of police killings and 20 dismissed complaints alleging bias, violence and illegal searches by Van Dyke. It also includes many of the years in which Chicago police ran a torture regime in which more than 200 men, the vast majority of them black, were shocked, beaten and subjected to mock executions. In May, the city council agreed to pay out $5.5 million to survivors of the program, many of whom spent years in prison after confessing under duress to crimes they had not committed. The city also continues to pay Commander Jon Burge, who ran the program, a $3,000 monthly pension.

"His legacy continues to tarnish the city and the lives of an estimated over 100 men who may still be in jail on convictions based on false confessions given under conditions that meet modern thresholds of what is considered to be torture," photojournalist Amanda Rivkin said. A Chicago native who is working on a long-term project documenting victims of the torture program, Rivkin said that, beyond the reparations to victims, too few resources have gone toward seeking real justice, in part because the city cannot find the money to cover it. "The activists have won major battles," she said. "There is some hope, but the success of these efforts require funding, which is lacking as the state and city are broke - yet Jon Burge continues to receive $3,000 per month."

It is long slow work fighting for police accountability in Chicago. Yet, as another turbulent year comes to a close in the city, activists keep right on working to get the department to admit to its wrongs. As Rivkin said, their resolution has seen results. Perhaps for 2016, the city administration could resolve to join them in their efforts.

Have something to say? Add your comment below. The thread is open for 24 hours from posting.