On the night of October 24, 2014 Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer. The incident began with a call from a surrounding Burger King that a man was walking around with a knife. Police quickly arrived at the scene, when McDonald began to run and then eventually started walking away from the officers surrounding area posing no threat. But a video released November 24, more than a year after the October 20, 2014, incident, shows a police officer approaching McDonald from at least 10 feet away and firing 16 shots, even after the 17-year-old fell to the ground, where he briefly moves before lying still. An officer then approaches the body and kicks away an object — allegedly a knife with a 3-inch blade that the teen held as he moved down the street.
The video was released on November 24, hours after Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced she would press first-degree murder charges against Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot and killed McDonald. “The officer’s actions were not justified and were not a proper use of deadly force,” Alvarez said. But it took more than a year and a lengthy legal battle to get the video released, fostering suspicions that Chicago officials were engaging in a cover-up. The release of the footage came after months of pressure by local activists and an independent journalist, Brandon Smith, who pushed in court to have the video released to the public. But the shooting has also drawn nationwide scrutiny, elevated by the Black Lives Matter movement that’s protested racial disparities in police use of force following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.
According to the autopsy report, 16 bullets struck McDonald. The charging documents claim Van Dyke spent 14 or 15 seconds shooting McDonald. Van Dyke continued firing for 13 seconds while McDonald was on the ground, according to forensic evidence. Only two of the 16 shots could be definitively linked to when McDonald was standing, and Van Dyke fired all the shots. The charging documents also claim that Van Dyke was on the scene for less than 30 seconds before he began firing. Police officers on the scene claimed that McDonald didn’t respond to commands to drop the knife. He reportedly had a glazed look in his eyes, and an autopsy later found he had the drug PCP in his system. But McDonald never seemed to threaten the officers, and in fact appeared to move away from them before Van Dyke opened fire. Still, Van Dyke’s attorney told the New York Times that the officer feared for his safety. The charges against Van Dyke were filed 13 months after he shot McDonald, and it’s likely the video played some role in landing those charges. As troubling as the video and charges are, they’re not the first time Van Dyke came under criticism for his work as a police officer. According to an Invisible Institute database, civilians filed at least 18 complaints against Van Dyke since 2001, although he was never disciplined for the complaints:
- One complaint dealt with racial or ethnic verbal abuse.
- Ten complaints were about arrest and lock-up procedures.
- Three complaints alleged First Amendment violations and illegal arrests.
- One complaint was search-related.
- One complaint pertained to operation and personnel violations.
- Two complaints noted other misconduct, but the details are unknown.
Still, these complaints are only the minimum. Alison Flowers from the Invisible Institute told ABC 7, “Our data tool does not encompass all of Van Dyke’s complaints. There are still more that exist that we don’t have access to, that we’ve not been provided by the city, because of the injunction by the Fraternal Order of Police.”
The McDonald shooting is not the first time the Chicago Police Department has faced accusations of excessive use of force. This past year, the city announced it would pay $5.5 million to the victims of Chicago police commander Jon Burge, who allegedly tortured people into confessions. And a previous report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois found big racial disparities in Chicago police stops — although black residents made up nearly 33 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 72 percent of stops in 2014, with such disparities even more pronounced in predominantly white neighborhoods. With the McDonald shooting, many critics have accused Chicago officials of a cover-up. It took more than a year to release the footage. Official police reports indicate that every officer who filed an official report gave a very different description than what can be seen in the video. And, at the very least, the slow response to the shooting and the lack of public faith in the process exposed flaws in how Chicago investigates its own cops.
After the shooting, according to Jay Darshane, the District Manager for Burger King, four to five police officers wearing blue and white shirts entered the restaurant and asked to view the video and was given the password to the equipment. Three hours later they left, he said. The Burger King sits at 40th and Pulaski and has a series of outside security cameras. The next day, when an investigator from the Independent Police Review Authority asked to view the security footage, it was discovered that the 86 minutes of video was missing. The 86-minutes of missing video runs from 9:13 p.m. to 10:39 p.m., according to the lawyers for McDonald’s family. He was shot at approximately 9:50 p.m.
On December 9, 2015 Mayor Rahm Emanuel addressed the people and apologized for the shooting of Laquan McDonald and pledged to finally end Chicago’s entrenched practice of police brutality and apologized for failing to fix the deep-seated issue sooner. The 40-minute address served as a high-profile platform for Emanuel to again offer a list of the steps he’s taken so far, but also tackle head-on a complicated series of challenges surrounding race relations and a deeply rooted lack of trust many minorities in Chicago have in the officers who patrol their communities.
“We are here today because Chicago is facing a defining moment on the issues of crime and policing, and the even larger issues of truth, justice and race,” Emanuel said at the start of his speech in a quiet City Council chamber. “We can either be defined by what we have failed to do — or what we choose to do.”
The response to Emanuel’s promises of swift action and a better police force, however, reflected the credibility gap the mayor faces on some of the very topics he raised. Normally compliant aldermen offered little more than cautious optimism, and hundreds of protesters who took to the streets outside City Hall dismissed the remarks and continued to call on him to resign.