A Chicago police officer is on trial for killing a black teenager. Here’s what you need to know.
As Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke sat on the witness stand in a Cook County courtroom on Tuesday and recounted the night of October 20, 2014, he told lawyers that he had no choice but to shoot Laquan McDonald.
“We never lost eye contact, his eyes were bugging out, his face was just expressionless,” Van Dyke said. “He turned his torso towards me. He waved the knife from his lower right side upwards across his body towards my left shoulder.”
”I shot him.”
Over the course of 90 minutes, Van Dyke described what led him to shoot the black 17-year-old 16 times. He said he feared that officers on the scene were “under attack,” despite several officers staying in their vehicles as they watched McDonald walk down an empty street. He said he fired when McDonald raised the knife at him, despite a dashboard camera video of the shooting showing McDonald’s arms at his side. And Van Dyke claimed that he continued to fire more than a dozen bullets at the fallen teen because McDonald attempted to get up, something else that video does not show.
It’s been nearly four years since the Laquan McDonald shooting ignited long-simmering tensions between Chicago police and communities of color and called national attention to police use of force. For the past three weeks, these tensions have been front and center as Van Dyke stands trial for McDonald’s death.
The highly anticipated trial, which began in September and is expected to wrap up ton Thursday, was the first time in more than three decades that a Chicago police officer has faced murder charges. There’s been a fair share of disagreement and controversy, with the prosecution and defense exchanging a flurry of proposals and counterproposals, including calls from the defense to have the trial moved out of the city (that proposal was denied); demands that Van Dyke be jailed for giving a newspaper interview in violation of his bail conditions (also denied); and arguments that presiding Judge Vincent Gaughan was biased toward the prosecution (he continues to oversee the case). A jury will soon determine Van Dyke’s fate.
The McDonald shooting became a flashpoint in Chicago, calling national attention to a decades-old divide between the city’s police force and its residents and sparking waves of protests. It fueled a damning Justice Department investigation into the Chicago Police Department, a new consent decree aimed at reforming the department, and a wave of political changes in the city.
Van Dyke’s trial, then, is about more than one officer standing trial for a police shooting. It is about a broader system of policing in Chicago and how that system has impacted communities of color. The question Van Dyke’s trial raises is if the demands for police accountability and political changes will translate into legal consequences for the officer at the center of one of the highest-profile shootings in Chicago’s history, and how residents will respond to the jury’s verdict.
The Laquan McDonald shooting, briefly explained
In the evening hours of October 20, 2014, Chicago police approached McDonald after getting reports of someone breaking into vehicles in a trucking yard. As the teen walked away from officers, a group slowly began to follow him and were waiting for a Taser unit to arrive. Police said that McDonald was armed with a knife, and reported that he “popped” the tire of a police cruiser. Still, none of the other officers on the scene approached him directly, remaining in their vehicles or following on foot as he moved down the street.
When Van Dyke arrived on the scene after hearing initial dispatches, he opened fire within seconds, completely emptying his service weapon. Van Dyke later said that McDonald had failed to comply with demands to drop the knife and had made a threatening move toward police.
More than a year later, after a string of lawsuits and a judge’s order to release dash-cam footage of the shooting, city officials released video showing that McDonald appeared to be moving away from police when he was shot, contradicting Van Dyke’s account. The video also showed that McDonald was roughly 10 feet away from Van Dyke when the shooting happened, and that many of the 16 shots hit McDonald after he fell to the ground. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder in November 2015.
In the following months, one current and two former Chicago police officers were charged for conspiring to help Van Dyke cover up the shooting in police reports; one of those officers testified during Van Dyke’s trial. They are expected to face their own trials later this year.
The prosecution argues that Van Dyke’s shooting of McDonald was unjustified
Van Dyke faces a number of charges for the shooting, including two counts of first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery (one for each bullet fired), and one for misconduct in office. Each charge carries varying degrees of prison time. Misconduct in office, for example, carries a maximum sentence of five years, while the murder charges could lead to life in prison.
When the prosecution opened its case, it focused on two arguments: 1) that McDonald wasn’t a threat at the time of his shooting, and 2) that the number of times Van Dyke fired was excessive and fell outside the wide latitude police officers are given to use deadly force.
”The defendant shot Laquan McDonald 16 times,” special prosecutor Joseph McMahon told jurors as he made his opening statement. “It was completely unnecessary.”
In the trial’s first week, prosecutors called 24 witnesses over the course of four days, including forensic and ballistics experts, civilians who witnessed the shooting, and other officers present at the scene. Several of those officers testified that they did not see McDonald as a threat requiring deadly force.
This point was repeated by the prosecution, arguing that when Van Dyke shot McDonald six seconds after arriving at the scene, he was reacting to a threat that was not there.
Prosecutors also focused heavily on the duration of the shooting and the number of shots that hit McDonald as he lay on the ground, noting that McDonald fell less than two seconds into the encounter and that the majority of the 16 shots hit him after he had fallen. A county medical examiner argued that each shot contributed to McDonald’s death. Later in the trial, a ballistics expert testified that the length of the shooting, which lasted roughly 14 seconds, suggested that Van Dyke had time to aim the shots.
“The risk posed by Mr. McDonald did not rise to the necessity of using deadly force to stop him,” Urey Patrick, an ex-FBI agent and expert on police use of deadly force, testified as the prosecution began to wrap up its arguments.
The final testimony from the prosecution came from Jose Torres, a man who witnessed the shooting with his son. Torres noted that he also saw McDonald moving away from officers when Van Dyke opened fire, and that Van Dyke continued to shoot McDonald for several seconds after the teenager fell.
“I said, ‘Why the F are they still shooting him when he’s on the ground?” Torres said.
The defense argues that Van Dyke lawfully shot McDonald, who posed a serious threat
The defense has repeatedly turned to a point first raised at the beginning of the trial: Even if video shows McDonald moving away from police, that footage does not capture how Van Dyke perceived the incident. And this perception is what led the 17-year Chicago Police veteran to open fire, fearful for his life.
“They want you to go into the final minutes of a two-hour movie without knowing the context,” defense attorney Dan Herbert told the courtroom during opening statements last month. Van Dyke’s team has argued that the shooting was a “tragedy, but it’s not a murder,” adding that race had nothing to do with the shooting.
The defense has focused much of its attention on McDonald, presenting him as similar to a horror movie villain, a violent and troubled youth out on a “wild rampage,” saying that he had a history of offenses and failed to respond to commands because he was on drugs (an autopsy found that McDonald had PCP in his system). Van Dyke’s attorneys also argue that McDonald was killed by the first shot fired, pointing to witness testimony that called the other 15 shots “totally immaterial.”
For more than a week, the defense asked some 20 witnesses if McDonald could reasonably have been seen as a threat during the shooting. They argued that Van Dyke was simply acting in accordance with his training in the midst of a highly stressful and ever-shifting situation.
To make this case, the defense presented expert testimony about the effects stress has on police officers, a Skype interview between Van Dyke and a psychologist, and a video animation that attorneys claim shows the shooting from Van Dyke’s perspective.
Van Dyke’s attorneys have highlighted this animated video, in particular, as an important piece of evidence that shows McDonald was closing the distance between himself and Van Dyke shortly before the officer opened fire. The prosecution has argued that McDonald was moving away from officers when the shooting took place, and that video of the shooting backs this account.
Much of Van Dyke’s defense hinges on the legal protections given to police officers who use deadly force. As Vox’s German Lopez has noted, law enforcement is given wide latitude to use force when that force is seen as necessary to protect the lives of the officer or the public. This often boils down to how an officer perceived an incident, and if his perceptions were reasonable given the circumstances.
Under Illinois law, an officer may use deadly force when he believes that such force is “necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or such other person” or when “necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape.”
This was the case an emotional Van Dyke attempted to make when he took the stand for an hour and a half on Tuesday. During his testimony, he argued that McDonald was “advancing” and would not drop the knife.
Van Dyke also said that McDonald raised the knife as he approached and was waving it in the officer’s direction. It was that action, Van Dyke said, that prompted him to open fire. He added that in the moment, he was not aware of the number of times he fired his weapon, saying that he continued to fire while McDonald was on the ground because he wanted the knife out of McDonald’s hand.
When the prosecution pointed out inconsistencies in this account, noting that police had sent a dispatch requesting a Taser unit, that footage of the shooting never showed McDonald raise his arm, and that Van Dyke actually took steps toward McDonald, the officer countered that the video “doesn’t show my perspective.” The prosecution then turned to the animation created by Van Dyke’s legal team, noting that this video also failed to show McDonald raise his arm.
“You’ve sat here for several days and watched several videos. … Have you ever seen Laquan McDonald do that on one of those videos?” asked assistant special prosecutor Jody Gleason.
Van Dyke said the animation also did not fully capture his perspective the night of the shooting because it was not a first-person view taken from the angle he saw. He made a similar claim about the fact that no video showed McDonald attempting to get back up after he had fallen.
“I was coming at it from a completely different angle,” he said when defending his decision to continue firing at McDonald.
As his testimony came to a close, Van Dyke said that McDonald could have “ended it all” by throwing away the knife.
“You could have ended it all the minute he hit the ground,” Gleason countered.
McDonald’s shooting fueled a wave of changes in Chicago. Now the city is bracing for Van Dyke’s verdict.
The McDonald shooting had a tremendous impact on Chicago, calling attention to an extensive history of police violence and misconduct that has targeted and angered the city’s black and brown residents for decades.
Shortly after footage of the shooting was released, the Department of Justice announced a review of the Chicago Police Department. A report published 13 months later found that the city’s officers regularly used excessive force and treated residents of color like they were “animals or subhuman.” In September, city officials agreed to a proposed consent decree that would drastically reform the Chicago Police Department.
Video of the McDonald shooting also had an immediate impact on the city’s politics. Activists mounted a successful campaign to oust then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez from office, arguing that the one-year delay in charging Van Dyke was an unforgivable offense that reeked of a political cover-up. The city’s police superintendent was fired.
On September 4 of this year, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he was dropping his bid for a third term leading the city, a decision that came days before the start of Van Dyke’s trial. The shooting has also spurred a number of candidates to enter the mayoral election, including local activist Ja’Mal Green and former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
Even with these changes, many Chicago residents continue to view the police department with suspicion. The department “has relied on a two-tiered and unequal policing structure that has perpetuated systemic racial abuse and civil rights violations that remain ongoing today,” Craig Futterman, a policing expert and professor at the University of Chicago School of Law, told Vox in July, shortly after the police shooting of Harith Augustus sparked a wave of protests in the city.
These tensions are expected to play a role in reactions to the Van Dyke trial. As the trial enters its final days, attention has increasingly turned to the jury and its future verdict, with activists and police alike bracing for the city’s possible reaction if Van Dyke is acquitted.
“We do not want people to be calm. Because there’s no reason to be calm if somebody who shot somebody 16 times is acquitted for murder,” Chicago activist William Calloway said on October 1 during a meeting with several local black pastors, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. “What we are asking the community of the city of Chicago is to be non-violent and non-destructive.” Local faith leaders and activists have called for protests and a day-long labor strike if Van Dyke is acquitted of murder charges.
Still, no matter Van Dyke’s verdict, Chicago residents say that McDonald’s death sparked a seismic change in the city, one that brought long-overdue attention to policing. As one local minister told the New Yorker in September, “the name around which the city revolves is Laquan McDonald.”