Holding Police Accountable for Violence: Chicago Police Officer Indicted for Killing Teenager

For the first time in over 50 years, a Chicago police officer has been convicted of murder. Last Friday, Oct. 5, Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago police officer, was found guilty of second-degree murder of Laquan McDonald, a 17 year-old boy.

Illustration by Ben Murphy

The Cook County jury voted to convict Van Dyke four years after McDonald’s murder in late Oct. 2014. Van Dyke, a near 20-year veteran of the force, argued he feared for his life because McDonald was walking erratically and carrying a knife. He proceeded to shoot McDonald 16 times, less than 30 seconds after arriving on the scene.

In addition to second-degree murder, the jury also found Van Dyke guilty on 16 charges of aggravated battery with a firearm — one for each shot fired. Each count carries a sentence between six and 30 years.

Outrage and protests have plagued the streets of Chicago since McDonald’s death, embodying the national conversations that surround Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and the country’s criminal justice system. Beyond the heinous crime itself, citizens of Chicago were also outraged by the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) withholding of video footage from that night.

In May of 2015, Brandon Smith, an independent journalist based in Chicago, filed a petition under the Freedom of Information Act with the CPD, demanding the dashcam videos from the night of the shooting. The CPD denied Smith’s requests for the video, saying they could not release the footage during an ongoing investigation. Smith sued the CPD in August of 2015, and in November of that year, a Cook County judge ordered the city to release the footage.

Once the video was released, it became clear why the city’s mayor at the time, Rahm Emanuel, and the CPD worked so hard to keep the footage from the public. The dashcam footage refuted several of the CPD’s primary claims about the murder, most notably that McDonald lunged at police officers; however, the video clearly shows the teenager simply walking down the middle of the street. This video also brought McDonald’s death into the national spotlight alongside Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and other similar shootings, making it part of a larger trend rather than an isolated incident.

Despite the jubilance of Van Dyke’s guilty verdict — demonstrated by hundreds of marchers swarming the streets in celebration — the fight is not over for many protestors who see the next battle already on the horizon: the ‘blue wall of silence.’

The blue wall of silence is a common phenomenon seen across police departments, which describes how officers protect each other and fail to report instances of misconduct from their colleagues. Already, three other officers in the CPD have been charged with lying about the shooting and conspiring to protect Van Dyke from repercussion. Thus, for many protestors, McDonald’s murder is about much more than Van Dyke and the 16 shots that October night; rather, it’s about systemic issues of lying and conspiracy, which remain pervasive in police departments in all 50 states across the country.

Van Dyke remains in jail and is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 31. A second-degree murder conviction carries anywhere from probation to 20 years in federal prison, while each count of aggregated battery carries a mandatory sentence of six to 30 years in prison. Van Dyke’s attorney has already vowed to appeal the conviction to a higher court. However, regardless of this intended appeal and the actual sentence at the end of the month, protestors are finally content knowing some justice has been served.

Aislinn Pulley, a founder of Black Lives Matter in Chicago, echoed the importance of the verdict alone to The Washington Post given how infrequently a police officer is “held accountable for murdering a black person in this city.”

“The beginning of a change is possible,” she said.

Grace Perry

Grace Perry

Grace Perry has been writing for the Catalyst since January 2018. She is a sociology major and double minor in journalism and Spanish.

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