Calls for Peace Made as Trial Begins for Chicago Officer Who Killed 17-Year-Old Laquan McDonald

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke opened fire on Laquan McDonald six seconds after getting out of his squad car, striking the black teenager 16 times. Police initially said McDonald lunged toward officers with a knife.

Laquan McDonald is shown in a family photo distributed by CNN Wire.

Laquan McDonald is shown in a family photo distributed by CNN Wire.

McDonald’s death on October 20, 2014 didn’t attract much attention outside Chicago until 13 months later, when a judge ordered the release of grainy dashboard camera footage of the shooting.

The fallout was immediate.

That footage — which showed McDonald walking away from officers, rather than charging at them — sparked protests, a Justice Department civil rights investigation, criticism of the city’s mayor, and eventually, the ouster of the police superintendent.

Now the officer who shot the 17-year-old heads to trial, accused of murder and aggravated battery with a firearm. Jury selection began Wednesday in a case that amplified a rift between police and the African-American community.

Van Dyke has argued he wouldn’t have shot McDonald if he didn’t think his life or someone else’s was in danger. But for many residents in this city, the trial is an opportunity to hold accountable a police officer accused of killing an African-American victim. McDonald’s family said they just want justice and will accept the verdict.

“We’ve come a long way and we’ve fought this every inch of the way,” McDonald’s great-uncle Rev. Martin Hunter said this week. “We did our part, as best we could, to try and make sure that we did not become obstructionists in any way to make sure that we could get at justice.”

Dashcam video released after 400 days

Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged Nov. 24, 2015, with murder in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was hit 16 times on Oct. 20, 2014. (Credit: Cook County State Attorney)

Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged Nov. 24, 2015, with murder in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was hit 16 times on Oct. 20, 2014. (Credit: Cook County State Attorney)

Van Dyke faces six counts of first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm and official misconduct. He is the first Chicago officer to be charged with first-degree murder since 1980.

At the time of the shooting, Van Dyke said he opened fire after McDonald lunged at him, “swinging the knife in an aggressive, exaggerated manner,” and ignored the officer’s orders to drop the knife. He said McDonald continued to grasp the knife, pointing it at him, as he tried to get up from the ground.

Officials said Van Dyke’s partner and four other officers backed up his account, saying McDonald refused officers’ orders and continued to advance toward them, waving the knife.

The dash camera video also appeared to show McDonald’s body being hit by bullets after he was on the ground.

Protesters chanted “16 shots and a cover-up!” at one demonstration. Many questioned why it took 400 days to release the video. Mayor Rahm Emanuel denied that he was involved in keeping the video from being released.

“I own it,” Emanuel said then. “I take responsibility for what happened, because it happened on my watch.”

“And if we’re going to fix it, I want you to understand that it’s my responsibility.”

The mayor vowed to repair the department’s trust with the African-American community.

Soon after the video’s release, Emanuel asked for the resignation of then-Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. The mayor said he and McCarthy talked about how the McDonald case had “shaken” public trust in the police.

Emanuel said his goal was to “confront the challenges” facing the department and “go forward” with “fresh eyes and new leadership.”

That same day, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate whether the police department’s practices violate the Constitution and federal law.

A petition later circulated calling for Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign. Neither resigned but Alvarez would later lose her re-electioncampaign.

In July, Madigan and Emanuel announced a draft consent decree that would be part of federal court oversight of sweeping reforms into the beleaguered department. The reforms will include use of force among officers and de-escalation tactics, supervision and accountability, as well as community policing.

This week, one day before jury selection began, Emanuel announced he won’t seek re-election. In March, McCarthy announced his intention to run for mayor, according to CNN affiliate WLS.

‘We don’t want any violence’

McDonald’s family, who gathered Tuesday at Grace Memorial Baptist Church in Chicago, declined to comment on the mayor’s announcement.

Their focus was solely on the upcoming trial, said Hunter, pastor of Grace Baptist Memorial, where McDonald’s funeral service was held.

Hunter said he recognized McDonald represented “all of the victims of police violence against citizens in this city and in this county,” and people are angry at his violent death. But he asked for “complete peace.”

“We don’t want any violence before, during or after … the verdict in this trial,” he said.

He added: “Give the judge a chance to do his job, give a jury a chance to do their job.”

In interviews with local media, both Van Dyke and his wife said they are nervous at the possible outcome.

“I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer,” he told The Chicago Tribune in an interview.

“Taking a person’s life is not something I take lightly at all,” Van Dyke said in an interview with WFLD.

“I never would have done this if I didn’t think my life, or somebody else’s life, was in danger,” he told the station.

Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham said Van Dyke has the union’s “full support.”

“We are relieved that the case will be tried in court under the rules of evidence and not in the media,” Graham said.

‘We’ve seen what happened in Ferguson’

Retired Chicago police officer Richard Wooten said many people across the nation will be watching the trial.

“There have been so many cases where police officers have been found not guilty of shooting African-American men,” said Wooten, who retired in August 2015 and has been critical of the department. “They’re going to be looking for fairness. They’re going to be looking for justice.”

He said the city is “only a smidgen away from becoming a Ferguson,” referring to the Missouri city where protests erupted after Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

“I’m hoping and praying that the judicial system does exactly what they’re required to do and follow the law and find them guilty so that we can save the city of Chicago from outrage,” Wooten said.

In the months leading up to the trial, community leader William Calloway organized town hall meetings to strategize the reaction to both an acquittal and conviction and hopefully prevent unrest. In one meeting in July at St. Sabina Catholic Church, some of the few dozen people attending were adamant that Van Dyke should be convicted of murder. If he was not found guilty, there would be an uproar, others said.

One person suggested the city should burn down, recalled Calloway, who fought for the release of the dashcam video.

“We’ve seen what happened in Ferguson. We’ve seen what happened in Baltimore with Freddie Gray. We don’t want it to be a violent reaction from communities in Chicago if Jason Van Dyke is acquitted,” Calloway said. “We’re going to be non-violent. If we have to practice civil disobedience, we will.”