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The Execution of Laquan McDonald

A new video shows a Chicago police officer murdering a black teen last year. Why did it take so long for us to get here?

Cook County

Laquan McDonald seemingly breathed his last through the bullet holes. As he is perforated, you don’t see his blood so much as the visible air that escapes from his freshly made wounds. It looks like bursts of exhaust. The first shot has already come, a mere 30 seconds after officer Jason Van Dyke arrived and began firing from a considerable distance. It dropped McDonald immediately to the street—not like some kind of cinematic villain, but with a sickening verisimilitude. But you already know that what you’re seeing is all too real, and that it both explains why Chicago has hid the footage for more than a year and why you’ve been dreading its release for nearly a week. Every hit Laquan takes serves as confirmation: You’re watching a 17-year-old, holding a small knife, having 16 slugs pumped into him by a police officer to whom he never speaks, and—contrary to the original police account—never threatens.

It is a nightmare to watch, and about as obvious an execution as you could imagine. It makes all the sense in the world that Van Dyke would be charged with first-degree murder, which finally happened hours before the release of the video. 

We know that freelance journalist Brandon Smith’s lawsuit brought the footage to light, against the preference of Laquan’s family. They feared riots, a family attorney told The Daily Beast shortly before a judge ruled last week that the city must make the video public by the day before Thanksgiving. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Gerry McCarthy clearly feared the same thing, urging civic calm above all else, because the video was that bad. Emanuel was painfully bad himself yesterday, condemning the officer for the year-old murder while claiming he hadn’t seen the video himself. He was either lying, or he’s been derelict in his duty as mayor. Even worse, Emanuel tried to use the release of the video as a teaching moment. “I believe this is a moment that can build bridges of understanding rather than become a barrier of misunderstanding. I understand that the people will be upset and will want to protest when they see this video,” he said. “We as a city must rise to this moment.” 

It turns out the citizens did, for the most part, hold up their end of that bargain during Tuesday night’s protests. But by shifting the focus from what happened on the tape (and who it happened to) to how they expected people to violently react, Emanuel and McCarthy repeated a fundamental mistake cities and law enforcement make when dealing with incidents of police violence: They wasted this potential tipping point by once again putting the onus on the public to behave, not on the police to reform. 

The need for reform in Chicago is particularly urgent. The Guardian reported in October that from 2004 to 2015, more than 7,000 people were “disappeared” at an off-the-books interrogation house called Homan Square. Essentially, this was extraordinary rendition, Chicago-style. Nearly 6,000 of those detainees were black. The city has spent more than $520 million dollars in the last decade on settlements, judgments, and legal fees related to police misconduct; more than $84 million in 2013 alone. That doesn’t include the $5 million settlement the city agreed to pay Laquan’s family in April. This is all in absence, largely, of any criminal consequences for those on the force committing these abuses and killings. Sure, disgraced former police commander Jon Burge just finished spending all of four years behind bars after running a torture ring that traumatized more than 100 black men. But Van Dyke, who himself has faced a litany of civilian complaints, is the first Chicago cop to be charged with murder since 1980

We’ve been watching police beatings and killings captured on camera since well before then—since the civil rights movement against Jim Crow, in fact. But in this technological moment when anyone with the proper cellphone can be a cinematographer, Laquan’s death may be the most savage police killing yet submitted for public consumption. That’s even considering Eric Garner’s NYPD chokehold, the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and the cold-blooded murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina. Perhaps other than Scott’s shooting, it is the most obviously criminal, as well. 

So why did it take us this long to get here, to a point where Van Dyke was finally brought up on charges and the video released? We can blame the cover-up effort documented by the Chicago Reporter, one that was foiled when a city whistleblower told a local attorney and a journalist that Laquan’s case “wasn’t being vigorously investigated.” You could even argue that the $5 million settlement for the McDonald family held things up, given that one of its conditions was to lock away the video from public view. However, that would give Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez a real pass here. She has had that video since last year, and claimed at Tuesday’s press conference that she’d made the decision to charge Van Dyke weeks ago, but was waiting for the feds to complete their own investigation. 

I’m sure I echo the frustration of a lot of Chicagoans when I ask: What the hell for? Anyone with a lick of common sense and a good set of eyes can watch that video and known that they’ve witnessed a murder. Why did it require a journalist’s lawsuit and a nationwide outcry to push Alvarez’s schedule up?

The video, of course. Given precedents in other cities—including the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, that began one year ago when we learned Darren Wilson wouldn’t face charges for killing Michael Brown—it may seem understandable that not only Alvarez would want to make sure charges were filed before the video was made public, but that Emanuel and McCarthy would seek to maintain order. But as with the burned police car last November 24 in Ferguson, the concern cities have for property still seems to take precedence over the urgency for police reform, something that Chicago ignores to the peril of its other priorities. The settlement money they’re paying could otherwise be paying for infrastructure, education, or other dire civic needs. Instead, Chicago and cities like it continue to subsidize bad police behavior, with little accountability for the officers themselves.

Slow-footing justice in the court system only worsens the problem. Laquan’s case, along with Tamir Rice’s, provides ample evidence for why, in the cases of police shootings, a special, independent investigator and prosecutor must be assigned immediately after an incident occurs. Police brutality cases should be taken out of the hands of local prosecutors like Alvarez, who are subject to the whims of voters and the interests of police with whom they cooperate on other cases. Alvarez did not confirm on Tuesday whether she suddenly sped up the process to charge Van Dyke in order to mitigate any potential rioting, but she should. It’s a good thing that he was charged, but a bad look to do it while giving the appearance that it was done to mitigate any potential unrest.

The way Chicago handled this video release shines a light on the priorities left unaddressed. The people of Chicago, particularly those of color, seem to be viewed not so much as citizens to guard and protect as they are people to guard and protect against. Chicago officials, to this point in the Laquan McDonald story, have made it clear that they fear racial unrest and property damage more than they fear the absence of justice for police victims. Perhaps when Mayor Emanuel finally does get around to watching the video, he’ll understand how deeply disturbing that is.