A Moment of Sober Victory

Today, we join our beloved and troubled city in a solemn sigh of relief after a twelve member jury returned a verdict of second degree murder in the murder trial of Jason Van Dyke, the White Chicago police officer who gunned down Black teenager Laquan McDonald four years ago in Archer Heights.

The verdict marks a moment of sober victory in a city where police officers have killed civilians – disproportionately Black and Brown people - with legal impunity for nearly 50 years. Today’s decision disrupts the reigning status quo: A divergent and unequal path of justice for police officers and civilians of color that we at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights are committed to upending.

But no jury can heal the pain or ease the loss of Laquan McDonald’s family and friends. No court can calm the storm of suspicion brewing in communities of color long abused by police. When city officials were finally ordered to release the dash-cam footage of Laquan McDonald’s shooting, a heavy door was opened partway that no judge can close. For many people, the video came as a shock to the system; for communities of color on the South and West Sides of Chicago, it simply reaffirmed their experience from decades of abuses.

Communities and advocates marking this historic chapter are now awaiting the final hearing before the court entry of a proposed federal consent decree that would force massive reforms in the Chicago Police Department. After the killing of Fred Hampton in 1969; after the Metcalfe hearings on police misconduct in 1972; after two decades of torture and false imprisonment under Commander Jon Burge; after false arrests, coerced confessions and wrongful convictions under Sgt. Watts; after unconstitutional loitering ordinances and stop-and-frisk practices; it took the death of Laquan McDonald to secure a court-ordered promise to deliver real change. We at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee will be vigilant in our efforts to work alongside impacted communities to monitor and enforce that promise.

The road ahead is not easy. Many of the systems that worked to keep the truth about Laquan McDonald’s killing a secret for over a year after his death are still deeply rooted in the contracts negotiated between the City and police unions like the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). Despite the consent decree, CPD’s Code of Silence will cast a long shadow if these contracts continue to mandate waiting periods prior to statements about shootings, constrain COPA investigations, and limit the use of police misconduct records. Until the City commits to changing the harmful provisions in these contracts – reforms advocated by the Coalition for Police Contracts Accountability- we will continue to fight for the police accountability and transparency required to end this separate system of justice.

Timna Axel