In the graphic video seen across the country Tuesday, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke levels his gun toward Laquan McDonald, an African-American teen carrying a knife and veering away from the officer. Van Dyke shoots. McDonald spins, then falls to the ground as Van Dyke continues to fire every bullet in his clip — 16 shots in all.
The officer was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder in the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting, which prosecutors say was an “improper use of deadly force.” That night protesters in Chicago streamed through downtown toward police department headquarters, chanting “16 shots.”
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Van Dyke, a white 14-year veteran of Chicago’s police force, has been accused of misconduct 17 times before, according to data from the University of Chicago and the journalism nonprofit Invisible Institute. The database, published less than a week before the announcement that Van Dyke would be prosecuted, details tens of thousands of complaints against Chicago police officers that weren’t previously made public. Fewer than 5 percent of the allegations resulted in disciplinary actions for the officers; none of the complaints against Van Dyke led to a penalty.
“We don’t have all of Van Dyke’s complaints but … the misconduct complaints from Van Dyke that we do have in our data tool show by and large excessive force and racial slurs. And he has largely operated with impunity and under a code of silence with the same huddle of officers again and again,” the Invisible Institute’s Alison Flowers told Chicago ABC affiliate WLS.
Van Dyke joined the Chicago Police Department in 2001 and spent several years on the force’s Targeted Response Unit, a citywide team that aggressively worked in neighborhoods where crime was spiking. That force was disbanded by Superintendent Garry McCarthy in 2011.
The allegations against Van Dyke include 10 complaints of excessive force, including two incidents where he allegedly used a firearm, causing injury. He was also accused of improper searches and making racially or ethnically biased remarks. Four of the allegations were proven factual, but Van Dyke’s actions were deemed lawful and appropriate. In most of the other cases, there was either not enough evidence to prove or disprove the complaint or the allegation was proven unfounded.
The information in the database comes from reports spanning 2002 to 2008 and 2011 to 2015, which were released by the Chicago Police Department in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and a years-long legal battle over whether citizen complaints should be public information.
The data shows that it’s rare for any officers to be penalized, and white officers were half as likely as black ones to be disciplined for a complaint. More than 60 percent of allegations that resulted in discipline came from white citizens, even though they accounted for just 20 percent of complainants. (Black complainants were also much more likely to fail to file an affidavit, a necessary step in the investigation process, which may account for some of the disparity.)
Regardless of race, it was extremely rare for allegations of any kind to be upheld — 4 percent of the 56,361 allegations were sustained. And it was even rarer for officers to be disciplined with more than a reprimand or a suspension of less than 10 days.
The Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police shootings and misconduct allegations, is led mostly by former officers, according to Chicago public radio station WBEZ. That has led some to question how independent the agency really is.
“Complaints may be seen not through the eyes of the citizen but through the eyes of a police officer,” Paula Tillman, a former IPRA investigative supervisor who was a Chicago officer herself in the 1970s and 1980s, told WBEZ. “The investigations can be engineered so that they have a tilt toward law enforcement and not what the citizen is trying to say.”
The Invisible Institute database also reveals how easy it could be for a few apparently abusive officers to garner a disproportionate number of complaints. Apparent repeat offenders — officers with more than 10 complaints against them — represented 30 percent of all complaints, even though they made up only 10 percent of the police force, a fact that police accountability experts like University of Pittsburgh Law School professor David A. Harris find troubling.
“It’s not unusual for a police officer to get a complaint, but the fact is that a complaint is a significant piece of information if it is a recurring thing,” Harris told The New York Times. “It is the patterns we worry about.”
Though Van Dyke appears in the database many times, he is by no means the most complained-about officer listed. That distinction goes to Jerome Finnigan, the subject of 68 citizen complaints in nearly two decades with the Chicago Police Department. None of the allegations resulted in disciplinary action.
In 2011, Finnigan was convicted of robbing criminal suspects while serving on an elite force and ordering a hit on an officer he thought might turn him in. At his sentencing, Finnigan admitted to having become “a corrupt police officer,” according to the Chicago Tribune. But he said the police department was aware, and for many years did nothing.
“My bosses knew what I was doing out there,” he said, “and it went on and on. And this wasn’t the exception to the rule. This was the rule.”
The same year Finnigan was convicted, McCarthy was appointed the city’s police superintendent. Since then, city officials told The New York Times, the police department that has been plagued for years by instances of brutality and abuse has undergone reforms in how it deals with officer misconduct. The department said it gets half as many citizen complaints as it did several years ago. (The Invisible Institute database lists 5,776 complaints in 2014, compared with 6,439 in 2011, although the nonprofit says their information is likely incomplete.)
One of those 2014 complaints is dated Oct. 20 — a misconduct allegation against Officer Jason Van Dyke. The database doesn’t include the details of the complaint, but it’s clear from the date and location what it’s about: the shooting of Laquan McDonald.
When Ed Nance first heard that Van Dyke was the officer involved, he broke into tears.
“He shouldn’t have been on the street in the first place after my incident,” he told the Chicago Tribune in April.
Nance filed a complaint against Van Dyke in 2007, after he says the cop aggressively handcuffed him during a traffic stop, injuring both his shoulders. A federal jury found that Van Dyke and a partner had used excessive force and rewarded Nance $350,000 in damages. But IPRA said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Nance’s claims. Both officers were cleared of all the allegations.
Nance, who had no criminal record, underwent two shoulder surgeries and began taking anxiety medication after the incident. Though he eventually recovered, the news about the shooting brought back Nance’s memories of the encounter with Van Dyke.
“It makes me feel like it could have been me,” he told the Tribune.
Daniel Herbert, Van Dyke’s attorney, said his client shot McDonald in self-defense. Prosecutors and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel thought otherwise.
“We hold our police officers to a high standards and obviously in this case Jason Van Dyke violated . . . basic moral standards that bind our community together,” Emanuel said at a news conference announcing the release of dash-cam video of McDonald’s shooting.
After a judge ordered the release of the video last week, Cook County chief prosecutor Anita Alvarez said she moved up the filing of the first-degree murder charge to come out the same day, just hours before the video was made public.
“With release of this video it’s really important for public safety that the citizens of Chicago know that this officer is being held responsible for his actions,” she said.
Van Dyke’s case marks the first time in more than three decades that a Chicago police officer has been charged with murder for an on-duty shooting.