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Four Years After a White Officer Shot a Black Teenager, a Changed Chicago Awaits a Verdict

CHICAGO — Three years ago, grainy video of a white police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times upended this city. The police superintendent was forced out, the prosecutor lost her election, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is not seeking re-election, was blamed. Chicagoans were furious and a Justice Department investigation confirmed their anger, finding far-reaching failures by the police, including rampant excessive force aimed at African-Americans and Latinos.

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Mitch Smith, Timothy Williams
Monica Davey, New York Times

CHICAGO — Three years ago, grainy video of a white police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times upended this city. The police superintendent was forced out, the prosecutor lost her election, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is not seeking re-election, was blamed. Chicagoans were furious and a Justice Department investigation confirmed their anger, finding far-reaching failures by the police, including rampant excessive force aimed at African-Americans and Latinos.

Now Chicago is awaiting a final chapter.

A jury must decide whether the police officer in the video, Jason Van Dyke, is guilty of murdering the teenager, Laquan McDonald. As closing arguments were made Thursday on the fifth floor of a county courthouse southwest of downtown, the case had become a proxy for long-standing questions about police accountability. It has been nearly 50 years since a Chicago police officer was convicted of murder in an on-duty shooting, and the trial deliberations were being watched closely.

Chicago Public Schools officials encouraged teachers to discuss the case with their students, offering possible topics like “What does the trial and its outcome mean for Chicago?” Ministers and activists met to plan demonstrations in case Van Dyke is not convicted.

Barricades were in place outside the courthouse, and Chicago police officers were asked to work 12-hour shifts and cancel their days off. In some neighborhoods, a handful of yard signs read, “Praying For Our City #Justice4Laquan.” And at least one city alderman, Derrick Curtis, issued a “Special Alert” on Facebook, noting that a verdict could come soon, and urging residents to “help me keep our neighborhood safe.”

“There’s a real sense of anxiety when it comes to this case and what it says about relations between the police and residents,” said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest who leads a South Side parish. “There’s a segment of people who have almost completely given up their hope and belief in the system, and if nothing happens to the officer this time? There’s a whole lot of folks that are going to say, ‘That’s my last chance of trying to believe in justice.’ It’ll set the relationship back decades.”

At the center of the case are two people whose lives intersected for only seconds along a road on the Southwest Side on Oct. 20, 2014: Van Dyke, 40, who joined the department 17 years ago and was described by a fellow officer as “your average Chicago police officer,” and Laquan, who had recently turned 17 and had struggled, spending time in foster care and juvenile detention and wrestling with the death of a great-grandmother who helped raise him.

After a truck driver reported someone breaking into vehicles in a parking lot that evening, police officers followed Laquan, who was carrying a 3-inch pocketknife and refused to stop when they told him to. The pursuit — Laquan walking down the street and officers on foot and in squad cars behind him — ended when Van Dyke arrived in a car, stepped out and shot him repeatedly, even as his body was crumpled on the street. The shooting came during a national conversation over the treatment of young black men by white police officers; only a few months before, a white officer had shot and killed Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Missouri. Still, Laquan’s death initially drew little public notice and only a few mentions in local news media. Early reports from the police suggested that Laquan had lunged toward Van Dyke with his knife, and some officers backed up that story in reports they filed.

What Chicagoans did not know at the time was that a video camera on the dashboard of a police car had captured the whole thing. The city waited 13 months to release the video, and then only after a judge ordered it.

The video immediately set off protests, accusations of a broad cover-up and demands for change. The video did not match what the police said had happened; it showed Laquan continuing to walk along, away from a growing group of officers when Van Dyke shot him. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder, though the charges were not filed until hours before the video was to be made public.

“That video opened a lot of people’s eyes,” said Rev. Ira Acree, a West Side minister. “There were people who really didn’t know how bad it was out here, how corrupt it was, until that.”

Over three weeks of testimony in Van Dyke’s trial, prosecutors have said that the shooting never needed to happen, and have focused their case mainly on the video. Jurors have been shown the video, over and over, on large screens. Another officer testified that he arrived less than a minute after Laquan was shot, carrying a Taser, which dispatchers had called for and which might have defused the situation. Prosecutors also told jurors this: Of 10 officers there that night, no one but Van Dyke fired their gun.

“It wasn’t the knife in Laquan’s hand that made the defendant kill him that night,” a prosecutor, Jody Gleason, said during closing arguments. “It was his indifference to the value of Laquan’s life.” She reminded jurors that Van Dyke had acknowledged telling his partner, before they even arrived, that they would have to shoot the person who was being chased.

For its part, Van Dyke’s defense team showed jurors its own video. It used laser technology to create an animation that, the team said, depicted what the events would have looked like from Van Dyke’s perspective. Taking the stand in his own defense, Van Dyke testified, emotionally at times, that the dashboard camera video had not captured all that he could see that night. Laquan had a menacing look in his eye, the officer said, and angled the knife in his direction. Witnesses for the defense also spoke of Laquan’s behavior in the past, saying he had acted up while in juvenile detention and used drugs, though witnesses conceded that Van Dyke did not know Laquan and would have known nothing about his background when he shot him.

The lead defense lawyer, Daniel Herbert, told jurors that “Laquan McDonald was the author, the choreographer of this story” and that his client acted reasonably and lawfully when he opened fire.

“Police are here to serve and protect,” Herbert said. “They can’t retreat. They can’t run away like us. And they have to encounter people that create their own destiny.”

Around Chicago, attention to the trial, which has been livestreamed on local news media websites, has been mixed. Some people said the amount of time it had taken to get to trial had made the issue fade some, and that they were only vaguely aware. Others, particularly in some of the South Side’s predominantly black neighborhoods, said they were closely following the proceedings. “Him getting off would just be almost a confirmation to a lot of people of color who feel like we are devalued here, we are discriminated against here,” said Asiaha Butler, a resident association leader in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood.“There’s so much racial bias here that no one wants to unpack and talk about.”

Some residents said it seemed unfair that Laquan’s past had been a focus of attention at the trial but Van Dyke’s had not. Records show that Van Dyke had at least 18 citizen complaints, including allegations of racial slurs and excessive force. In each case, he denied wrongdoing and was not disciplined.

Fallout from the video has forced changes in the Police Department, including new leadership and new rules for use of force and for when an officer is required to report it. But people in Englewood said little felt different.

“They can say what they want, but there’s nothing different about the ways policemen act,” said Robert Butler, 38. “They still ride around here like they own it.” The trial has also been watched intently by another group: Chicago police officers. Leaders of the police union sat alongside Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, in court, and some with ties to the Police Department have questioned the wisdom of prosecuting an officer for shooting an armed person. Van Dyke, whom the city placed on unpaid leave after he was charged, has been working as a janitor at the police union.

“A majority of police officers know that they could be Jason, and they’re watching it closely,” said Brian Warner, a former Chicago police officer who met Van Dyke in a support group for officers involved in shootings. “It’s probably already slowed down others doing their job. Maybe they’re not being as proactive as they were.”

Across the nation, even in the rare cases when an officer is charged in a fatal shooting, convictions can be elusive. Police officers have wide discretion to use deadly force, and juries and judges often give them the benefit of the doubt. Last year, officers were acquitted in deadly shootings in Milwaukee, St. Louis, suburban St. Paul, Minnesota and Tulsa, Oklahoma. In Cincinnati, a jury failed to reach a verdict and the charges were dropped.

There are exceptions: A suburban Dallas police officer was sentenced to prison this summer for murder; a volunteer sheriff’s deputy in Oklahoma was convicted of manslaughter two years ago; and a New York City patrolman was found guilty of manslaughter in a 2014 shooting.

Here, Acree said some people are watching and waiting anxiously for the decision from the jury, which, some residents have noted with concern, includes only one black member. Other people have turned away entirely, Acree said, resigned to a sense that no police trial would ever bring a conviction.

“They’re just numb, and saying, ‘This is Chicago,'” Acree said. “It’s a tale of two cities. It is what it is.”

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