Chicago police released the video this week, after a year of legal wrangling, of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. Over a year since the incident, the officer is facing first degree murder charges.
According to police accounts, McDonald was a suspect in some auto burglaries in the area. The police also say he was armed with a knife.
But those same accounts say Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fired sixteen bullets into his body but never gave any commands for him to halt, or put up his hands, or in any other way surrender. In fact, according to the officer whose car was recording the incident, said he was only on the scene for less than 30 seconds when he opened fire.
We’ll never know if McDonald is guilty of the crimes he was suspected of, because Officer Van Dyke acted as Judge, Jury and executioner, for a crime that would have been anything but a death sentence.
This isn’t the first time Van Dyke has been in trouble. According to CNN, he’s faced 20 lawsuits or complaints, which makes you question why he was on the streets to begin with.
Bringing it home
Over the past few years I’ve seen a lot of videos like this. I had to write story after story in my former role as a local TV news producer about these incidents.
And every one has made me more sure in my resolve that there is something broken in law enforcement in this country.
See, the ‘good guys’ aren’t supposed to shoot people in the back, or while stopped for a missing license plate, or choke them to death over bootlegged cigarettes. The ‘good guys’ are supposed to bring people to justice. Let them have their day in court, and spend time in jail if they’re guilty of the crimes they’re accused of.
But it seems like in the past few years, maybe more than other years, maybe I’m just paying more attention now, there are a lot of people getting killed by police for what would otherwise be petty crimes.
Is this a fluke that all these are happening, one seemingly after another?
Is it bizarre happenstance?
Or is it something that’s been going on, we’re just now getting around to noticing it?
I don’t have the answer to those questions. What I do know, both first hand, and through the stories of friends is that being at the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to big trouble for you, especially if you’re black. And if you happen to live in an area that’s a designated ‘wrong place’, you’re pretty much screwed.
And that’s why I’m a strong advocate for additional police oversight.
But lets not fool ourselves, cameras are only a part of that oversight.
What the shooting of Laquan McDonald shows is that the presence of cameras doesn’t mean a cop will think twice about using unnecessary deadly force for an assailant that is running away from them.
If this were a standoff, I think both the law, and standard operating procedure clearly dictates that the officer has a right to defend himself. But that’s not what happened. As the video clearly shows, McDonald was running away from the police. I’m not saying that’s legal, but it doesn’t seem to rise to any reasonable standard of using deadly force. That’s why this officer is facing murder charges.
But you also have to ask, “Why did this officer think using his service weapon was the best/only response?” And to get that answer, you have to look into both the written policy of the department, and the culture of the department. Because policy is no better than the paper its written on if there’s an understanding about when it will and won’t be followed. And if this officer believed that he could act in this way, without facing consequences, then the charges against him are as much an indictment of the upper echelon of the Chicago Police Department… a department whose initial account of what happened is very different from what is shown in the video, and the Cook County Prosecutor, who took a year to announce the indictment the officer, as it is an indictment of the individual cop.
In order to understand the difficult challenge that a prosecutor is under when the potential of indicting an officer presents itself, you have to look at the symbiotic relationship they have with police…as well as the personal relationships that they’re required to maintain to keep putting away bad guys.
Cops are the boots on the ground who deliver the goods to prosecutors: from the uniformed patrol who are the first responders, to the investigators who work to crack the case. Cops do the prosecutors dirty work, deliver them the case, and the prosecutor then has to be ready to take that information and put it before a jury.
Truth be told, both prosecutors and top brass with police forces around the country are political jobs, and they rely on the cops at the ground level to make them look good so they can keep their jobs.
So when no cops are found to have abused their authority after 20 police shootings in 5 years , or 6 cops beat the hell out of two guys and aren ‘t charged no one should be surprised.
One hand relies on the other to stay alive. As a result, those two hands tend to be forgiving of sins against outsiders.
The tactic was a shrewd maneuver, legal experts say, in which McCulloch both deflected responsibility for his own failure to charge Wilson and — deliberately or not — created conditions in which the grand jury would not be likely to charge him either.
Which is why its important that the Grand jury transcripts in the Darrius Stewart case be reviewed, and if the prosecutor employed a similar tactic, it be released to the public.
Because if the Shelby County DA’s office isn’t going to handle an indictment proceeding for a cop the same way they would handle any other like charge, then how can anyone believe that the interests of impartial justice are being served?
I like Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never met the man. But I believe he’s trying to run a clean shop, despite the slew of current and former officers that have been indicted over the past few years.
But when you read an investigation about something known as Choir practice you have to question not only the leadership that has risen through the ranks, but also the internal culture that brought that leadership to the top.
And while Armstrong may have kept a low profile early in his career its not crazy to question his ability, as an insider, to challenge a culture he’s been a part of since he was on patrol.
Because it seems that a greater proportion of cops have been accused to all kinds of crimes (cop crimes per thousand on the force), than the general public in the past couple of years (I dare a media outlet to run the numbers). And that’s worrisome.
Now, you could argue that the fact that so many cases have come up shows that the current administration is fighting back against internal demons, and you might be right about that. Or it could be that these were the easy cases, that were perpetrated by dumb people, and it was just too hard not to prosecute them.
In any case, with one case after another coming up this year alone, you have to wonder what else is going on, and, more importantly, what, if anything is being done about it.
In order for police and prosecutors to regain the faith and trust of the public, they have to stop using their reliance on each other as a wedge that creates two kinds of justice…inside justice and outside justice. Because that’s what it appears to be.
We also have to recognize that this isn’t anything new. This kind of separate and unequal justice has been going on in America for a long time. Anyone remember Rodney King? The only reason any cops were indicted in that case is because someone started videotaping from a nearby apartment. It was 1991, and video cameras weren’t as pervasive as they are today.
Now, just about every phone out there has some kind of camera. And that means, cases like the ones we’ve been hearing so much about over the past couple of years, are going to come to light more than ever before. Which should tell cops who are intent on overstepping their authority that they can’t do that anymore. That hasn’t happened.
So while law enforcement leaders, from the head of the FBI on down, may cite the “Ferguson Effect”… a spike in violent crime resulting from law enforcement withdrawing due to increased oversight, even though he admits he doesn’t have any solid evidence of it being a ‘thing’, the real ‘Ferguson Effect’, if there is one, is that the public is using the technology that is literally in their hands, to protect themselves from cops who would do wrong.
And that’s exactly the kind of oversight that is necessary to provide a check against civil rights abuses that have always been there, but are just now coming into the light.
But as we’ve seen in case after case, just capturing something on video isn’t enough to bring justice. That’s why independent prosecutors who have a transparency mandate should bring these cases to the Grand Jury, not state cops like the TBI, who have promised transparency, but so far, haven’t delivered.
That’s also why independent citizen led groups, like the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board should be there to provide oversight to the internal affairs process to ensure the internal enforcement of standard operating procedures and good policing techniques are adhered to, rather than relying on assurances from police administrators.
Because no one who’s ever had a bad encounter with a cop, and plenty of people who haven’t, believe in those assurances anymore.
Most importantly, the good cops who are out there…and there are hundreds of them in Memphis alone, should demand this kind of transparency, so they can remove the tarnish from their badges that cops who would exceed their authority have brought on them.
The police work for us, the citizens of Memphis. So do prosecutors. And while its understandable that neither group would want to part with the one hand washes the other relationship they’ve had over the years, the events highlighted in the media, both here and around the country, demand that they do.
That means more transparency in the workings of both organizations, and more accountability when things go wrong.
Exactly how it should have been in the first place.