CHICAGO (AP) — The 2018 conviction of former police Officer Jason Van Dyke for the killing of Black teenager Laquan McDonald marked an important moment in Chicago’s history. It was the first time in roughly half a century that a member of the police force was found guilty of murder for an on-duty killing and it gave hope to many residents that their officers could be held accountable.
Van Dyke’s scheduled release from prison on Thursday after serving about three years and four months, less than half of his sentence of six years and nine months, shows things aren’t so simple.
“This is the ultimate illustration that Black lives don’t matter as much as other lives,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, a prominent minister on the city’s West Side. “To get that short amount of time for a murder sends a bad message to the community.”
Van Dyke, who shot McDonald 16 times in 2014, including several times after the 17-year-old had crumpled to the ground, leaves prison at a tenuous time for the city and its police force. Chicago is experiencing a surge in violent crime and had more homicides last year than in any in the last quarter-century. The city continues to pay multimillion settlements to the victims of police abuse. And just this week, prosecutors said they would vacate the convictions of nearly 50 more people who were framed or falsely accused by police of drug crimes.
To be sure, the shooting of the Black teenager by a white officer eventually led to a court-ordered consent decree that resulted in several reforms, including the creation of a civilian-led police oversight board and new rules governing investigations into police shootings. And after the city refused to release the police video of McDonald’s killing for more than a year and only did so after being ordered to by a judge, it now must release such videos within 60 days.
But reforms have come slower than expected and the city has struggled to meet some of the consent decree’s deadlines. Not only that, but just as then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel fought the release of the McDonald video, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration tried to prevent a TV station from airing video of a botched police raid in which an innocent Black woman was handcuffed while naked. Ultimately, that raid led to a $2.9 million settlement with the woman, Anjanette Young.
To Hatch and others, Van Dyke’s early release is another reminder of what they already knew.
“It just reinforces this feeling of hopelessness in African American communities, and reinforces the thought that police can continue their oppressive behavior in those communities and be either exonerated or given light sentences,” said Chico Tillmon, a senior research fellow at the University of Chicago Crime Lab and a former gang member.
“I served 16 years and three months for conspiracy to sell drugs and somebody who committed murder, openly, publicly, did 3 1/2 years,” he said. “This kind of thing happens over and over.”
Hatch’s anger stems in part from a sense that the criminal justice system came tantalizingly close to finally working for a Black victim of police violence before the judge called a legal audible by sentencing Van Dyke only for second-degree murder — a charge that allows defendants to serve half their sentences if they behave in prison — and not any of the 16 counts of aggravated battery. The battery charge carries a sentence of six to 30 years in prison and those convicted of it must serve at least 85% of the term they receive.
After seeing how the city fought to keep the public from seeing the video of McDonald’s killing and how prosecutors only charged Van Dyke hours before the world finally got to see the damning footage, Hatch said he was hopeful when the jury found the officer guilty.
“I feel like the jury did its job,” he said. “Then the judge gave such a lenient sentence.”
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who helped lead the push to force the city to release the video, agrees, calling the sentence “a slap in the face for Black folks and those of us who care about police accountability.”
But at the same time, Futterman said, “It was next to unbelievable that there was a prosecution and a conviction for murder.”
And although McDonald’s great uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, believes the sentence was woefully inadequate, he said it doesn’t take away from the significance of the case.
“Had Jason Van Dyke gotten one day in jail it would have been a victory because he was the first,” said Hunter. “Since then, police across the country are getting convicted of murdering Black people.”
Joseph McMahon, the special prosecutor who led a team of attorneys that secured Van Dyke’s conviction and who asked the judge to impose an 18-20 year sentence, said he hopes people don’t think Van Dyke escaped punishment.
“I know this is difficult to accept, especially for minority communities marginalized by police and the criminal justice system for decades, but this (the conviction and sentence) is a sign of progress,” he said.
“Any length of time for a former cop is difficult,” McMahon added. “He was physically attacked, spent most of the time in isolation and that is the result of the very real danger he faced day in and day out for the last 3 1/2 years.”
The way Hatch sees it, Van Dyke’s release couldn’t come at a worse time for the police department, which has been scrambling to regain public trust that the McDonald case helped shatter.
“They’re trying to restore faith in law enforcement and now we have this?” he said. “And it will absolutely make it harder to get people to come with complaints about cops.”