On Friday, a Chicago police officer was convicted of second-degree murder for the 2014 shooting of a black teenager. That shooting was one of the most egregious examples of police brutality in recent years. And the subsequent government cover-up of the crime was even worse. Thankfully, the cover-up didn't work, and the verdict demonstrates that police brutality will be punished.
At the time of the incident, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was walking erratically down a Chicago street holding a small knife when officer Jason Van Dyke arrived with his partner. Van Dyke almost immediately exited his car, gun drawn, and began shooting, even though McDonald was walking the opposite direction from Van Dyke.
After McDonald was clearly incapacitated by the gunshots, Van Dyke continued to fire bullets into him even after he collapsed. He fired 16 shots in total.
The incident itself was bad enough, but then the city tried to cover it up, drawing renewed outrage from citizens who already have a fraught relationship with their police force.
At first, the police department reported that McDonald had come after Van Dyke with the knife, but it refused to release the video from another officer’s dashboard camera that had captured the entire incident.
Eventually, a federal judge ordered that the footage be publicly released. But that process took a court fight and a year of push-back from both the police department and City Hall under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Now, unsealed police documents reveal the extent of efforts to shield the officer, including orders to draft incident reports with false information and clear efforts to conceal what had actually happened.
Those efforts to cover up the crime have sparked political fallout for both Emanuel, who is not seeking reelection (probably as a result), and the Chicago police force, where three other officers have been indicted on obstruction charges. The county prosecutor and the police superintendent were also both forced to resign.
Van Dyke’s conviction is the first time that a Chicago police officer has been found guilty of murder in five decades. In a way, it comes as even more of a surprise than the shooting or the cover-up.
Van Dyke was convicted of murder as well as 16 counts of aggravated battery for each shot. He will face four to 20 years for the murder charge and an additional six to 30 for each count of aggravated battery. He is being held without bail until sentencing.
Convictions for those who covered up the crime should follow swiftly.
The successful prosecution of the officer and community pressure for justice is a welcome push for transparency and accountability from a police force that clearly has issues with both. Other cities shouldn’t wait until they find themselves in a similar situation with a dead citizen and an officer guilty of murder to make reforms.
But given recent incidents of similarly indefensible conduct, it looks like it will be a slow learning process. These incidents must be universally recognized as unacceptable by Americans. Justice should be pursued by police and government, not something to be abused and covered up.