For the first time in nearly 50 years a Chicago police officer has been convicted of murder after shooting to death a civilian while on duty. It took a while, but officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, one count for each of the 16 bullets he pumped into teenager Laquan McDonald back in 2014. Van Dyke is white, McDonald was black.
The shooting took place in an isolated area while several other Chicago PD officers watched. But the public was kept in the dark because the dash camera video of the incident was kept secret for more than a year. When a judge finally ordered it released everyone who saw the young man’s final moments were shocked. He seemed to be slowly dancing and twirling in the street holding a three-inch pocket knife and not, as cops claimed, lunging at armed officers who had him surrounded.
You’d think that since Van Dyke has now been convicted the case would be over. It is not. In a move law enforcement across the country is closely watching three officers who witnessed the shooting are to be tried next month for covering up the truth.
Officer Joseph Walsh who was Van Dyke’s partner the night of the shooting, Officer Thomas Gaffney and Detective David March each face charges of lying to investigators about the threat the teenager posed that night. In addition, four other members of Chicago’s police department face disciplinary dismissal hearings for withholding information. At least four more resigned before charges could be brought against them.
The mostly white jury decided McDonald’s death was murder. Future juries will decide the punishment for those accused of lying to protect one of their own.
Anyone who wears a badge is – or should be – worried about the public’s perception of what they do. In minority communities it doesn’t matter what color skin the officer has it is the uniform they automatically distrust. The continuous stream of police shootings of unarmed civilians (mostly men of color) have left many fearing the police instead of trusting them to protect their neighborhood. That isn’t good for anyone involved.
The only way this attitude changes is for the traditional blue wall of silence to crumble – completely and permanently. Officers can no longer follow the unwritten rule against reporting a colleague’s misconduct or crimes. Officers need to know that if they look the other way, feign ignorance or out-and-out lie to protect a fellow cop they will face prosecution and loss of their jobs, benefits and pension.
Over the years the trend had been against convicting police officers who had taken a life while on duty. Guess how many officers were found guilty of murder or manslaughter in 2016? None. And none were found guilty in 2015 or 2014 either. Judges and juries believed the officer when he or she said they really did fear for their life when they pulled the trigger.
But now the tide may be changing. In Dallas last month, white officer Roy Oliver was found guilty of murder for shooting into a car that he felt was aiming to hit his partner. A black high school freshman, Jordan Edwards, 15, was sitting in the passenger seat as the car left a party and was struck and killed by one of Oliver’s bullets. At trial Oliver’s colleague jumped the blue wall of silence and testified he did not believe the car posed a danger and he never felt the need to pull his gun. Oliver was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Will the members of Chicago’s police department ignore the age-old dictum that one cop cannot possibly testify against another? With the video tape of Laquan McDonald’s death now public how can they possibly stick to their original story that he was lunging at police?
Bottom line: cops gotta step up on this. This blue silence is, in reality, a stepping stone to community distrust. Lie to protect one of your own, plant a gun, tamper with a body camera and you run the risk of becoming an even bigger target out on the street. One earns respect through honesty and acts of integrity not by covering up for one another.
Regular readers of this column understand I am most frequently filled with praise for uniformed men and women who put their lives on the line to keep the rest of us safe. Everyone realizes the potential dangers officers face every single day. But with police officers shooting and killing an average 1,000 civilians every year statistics tell us there have to be some questionable cases. And those cases deserve honest testimony so justice can prevail.