2 years later, Laquan McDonald shooting leaves a trail of change

Two years ago, a white Chicago police officer fired 16 bullets at a black teenager in a fatal shooting captured on dashcam video that sparked outrage and reforms in a city that remains far from healed.

On the anniversary of the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting, amid surging gun violence, the city still faces uncertainty while awaiting the conclusion of a federal civil rights investigation of Police Department practices and the criminal trial of the officer at the center of the firestorm.

Still, experts say, there is reason for hope that the legacy of slain teen Laquan McDonald will be one of change.

"I think the release of the video was a defining moment for the city," said Craig Futterman, a clinical law professor who directs the University of Chicago's civil rights and police accountability project. "It didn't just reveal what everyone agrees to be a horrible and unnecessary killing of a 17-year-old boy. What is also revealed is the routine operation of a police code of silence. The lack of police accountability is a decades-old reality that won't just evaporate overnight, and it would be wrong not to recognize the real progress and real changes that have occurred since the release of the video."

Activists are expected to gather Thursday outside police headquarters to commemorate McDonald's life and unite families affected by police shootings and street violence. Earlier in the day, at the site of the shooting, organizers also plan to unveil recall legislation regarding offices of the mayor, aldermen and state's attorney.

The idea, sponsored by an outgoing Chicago Democrat who lost his primary re-election bid, likely won't advance during next month's veto session. But activists point to yearlong efforts by city leaders who fought against the video's release as reason the measure is needed.

An uproar ensued after the court-ordered release last November. The footage prompted the city months earlier to pay McDonald's family $5 million. Officer Jason Van Dyke faces murder charges for gunning down McDonald, who authorities allege was on PCP, holding a knife and ignoring repeated commands to surrender while walking briskly on the 4100 block of South Pulaski Road.

The video shows Van Dyke opened fire within seconds of arrival while McDonald appeared to be walking away from police, not lunging with the weapon as alleged.

The fallout cost the city's top cop his job and exposed the failings of how Chicago police handle officer shootings and citizen complaints, especially those involving minorities. State's Attorney Anita Alvarez lost re-election in large part to her delay in bringing charges.

Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson is pursuing termination proceedings against Van Dyke and four officers who are accused of an alleged cover-up. Another three officers have retired and a fourth resigned.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded by urging widespread changes aimed at staying ahead of federal authorities who may seek to enforce reforms. His task force delivered a blistering report that found police practices rooted in racial disparity and discrimination.

Much of the mayor's focus has been on the Independent Police Review Authority, which recommends discipline in many of the most serious cases. A Tribune investigation showed IPRA has often been biased in favor of officers, even when evidence suggests misconduct. The City Council voted to replace the agency with the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, giving it broader authority to investigate alleged wrongdoing.

The Police Department also has proposed policy changes to cut down on certain uses of force. Officers may not shoot, for example, unless a fleeing person poses an "immediate threat." Current rules allow police to fire on anyone who has committed or attempted a felony using force.

Officers also would be compelled to use the lightest force possible in any situation under the new rules, which reflect new training on defusing tense incidents as well as crisis intervention.

The mayor and police administration face a tough balancing act, though, as gun violence surges on the city's South and West sides. Some attribute the bloodshed, in part, to officers avoiding confrontations that could land them in scandal. According to Tribune data, Chicago has far outpaced other major cities with at least 605 homicides this year. The majority of the homicides involved gun violence, with at least 3,503 people shot.

Dean Angelo Sr., president of Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said it remains unclear what good has actually come since McDonald's death. He noted the availability of more Tasers for police, saying, "If there was a Taser on the street that day, it's over long before (McDonald) ever gets to Pulaski."

But Angelo said some of the suggested restrictions are in response to critics who know little about police work. He fears the pendulum has swung too far, leading to policies that restrict and endanger police and embolden criminals.

"Only we know who we're facing when we're in that alley or courtyard, " Angelo said. "It's a very tough job that requires instant decisions. My hope is that the officer is allowed to perform in a manner that ensures they go home at the end of their shift."

When asked about morale, Angelo responded, "If it exists at all, it's quite low. I pray it gets better, but I'm not that optimistic."

Frank Giancamilli, a Police Department spokesman, called McDonald's death a tragedy that led to improved policies, transparency and training.

"CPD is committed to increasing trust and accountability, which are critical to our efforts to rebuild the relationship between our officers and the residents they serve as we work to make Chicago safer," he told the Tribune in a statement. "Under Superintendent Johnson, the Department has committed to and is implementing the most sweeping reforms in recent memory."

The deadly October 2014 police encounter began on an industrial service road, bordered by the Stevenson Expressway, some 8 miles southwest of downtown. Officers initially treated it as nothing more than a routine call of someone breaking into cars.

Police trailed McDonald for nearly one half-mile, from a trucking yard through the parking lot of a Burger King and onto busy Pulaski Road. As other officers awaited backup units armed with Tasers, they tried to corral the teen to keep him away from passers-by. At one point, McDonald used a knife to slash the front tire and scratch the windshield of a squad car trying to box him. Still, police did not fire.

Van Dyke heard the radio dispatches as he and his partner drove to the scene. Prosecutors said Van Dyke opened fire six seconds after exiting his squad car. In his written reports, Van Dyke said he believed McDonald was attacking him with the knife. He said the teen raised it across his chest and over his shoulder, an accusation the video showed to be false. The footage, which does not include audio, also highlighted inconsistencies from other officers who portrayed the teen as far more menacing than what the footage depicts.

Van Dyke, 38, is free on bond while he awaits trial. His use of lethal force marked the first time he had fired his weapon in the line of duty, his service records showed. He was hired in 2001 and patrolled some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, typically while working the night shift.

In exclusive Tribune interviews this year, his wife and other relatives and supporters defended him as a good man and dedicated father of two daughters. Tiffany Van Dyke said her husband is traumatized that he "took a life," and said the shooting was not racially motivated. She said they both remember McDonald's family in their prayers.

The teenager was a second-generation state ward raised by a great-grandmother in the city's rough Austin neighborhood, but his young mother played a constant role in his life and had petitioned the court to regain custody in the year prior to his death.

The Tribune has inspected thousands of pages of records about his life in the court's juvenile and child protection divisions. The reports detailed his history of special education classes and school truancies, as well as 26 juvenile arrests, psychiatric hospitalizations and medical diagnoses, including post-traumatic stress disorder from childhood traumas.

To mark the second anniversary of the shooting, McDonald's family released a statement Wednesday thanking supporters.

"No amount of money will bring Laquan back," the statement read. "No amount of money will dull the pain of this tragic loss to his mother, sister and the rest of his extended family. ... We look forward to the day when the officer responsible for Laquan's senseless murder is held accountable in a court of law. Only then will justice truly be served."

cmgutowski@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @christygutowsk1

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