The early release from prison of a white Chicago police officer who was sentenced to about seven years for the murder of a Black teenager in 2014 has sparked anger among relatives, community organizers and politicians who are questioning the decision to shave three years off his sentence for good behaviour.
Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of murder in 2018, was sentenced to six years and nine months for the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, after video showed Van Dyke shooting the teenager 16 times.
Van Dyke is now set to be released on 3 February, almost three years ahead of schedule. He will remain on parole for at least two years.
Members of McDonald’s family, local activists and political leaders have voiced their fury over Van Dyke’s early release, noting that he served just a fraction of the 18 years prosecutors originally sought, let alone the maximum 96 years Van Dyke could have received for his charges.
In a press conference last Thursday held by McDonald’s relatives at a local church, his grandmother, Tracie Hunter, called Van Dyke’s punishment a “slap on the wrist”, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“I just want justice, the right justice,” Hunter said. “I’m not going to rest or be satisfied until this man does his rightful time from him.”
“It’s crazy how I go to a cemetery and talk to a tombstone while this man can talk to his wife and two kids,” said Tanesha Hunter, McDonald’s aunt, in a separate press conference on Monday.
Local activists have led several protests over the past week, including a rally outside Illinois governor JB Pritzker’s home last Friday. A number of actions are planned for Thursday, when Van Dyke will be released.
“He represents all the officers who we could not hold accountable, or that the justice system has not held accountable yet,” community organizer William Calloway told the Chicago Tribunelisting other people killed by Chicago police officers including 29-year-old Flint Farmer in 2011, 15-year-old Dakota Bright in 2012, 15-year-old Michael Westley in 2013, and 19-year-old Roshad McIntosh and 25-year-old Ronald Johnson III in 2014.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson said he is also organizing a march for Thursday and has joined other organizers in calling for the justice department to pursue federal civil rights crimes against Van Dyke. A federal investigation was opened in 2015 but charges were never filed.
“We all know that 81 months is not enough to fully hold Van Dyke accountable and we know that there is a movement in this city. That is the reason why Van Dyke is behind bars, so we are reactivating that movement,” Jazmine Salas of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, one of the organizations that signed a letter to the Department of Justice asking for federal charges, canopy WTTW.
Pritzker himself has been critical of Van Dyke’s shortened sentence, saying last friday that he was “disappointed” in the outcome.
“The justice system isn’t always just, and I don’t think that the outcome of sentencing of Jason Van Dyke was proper,” the governor said. “I am disappointed and I would have rather seen a different outcome. But this is where we are.”
Backlash against Van Dyke’s release has been magnified by Chicago’s shaky record on police reform after McDonald’s murder and more police-involved shootings since, despite a consent decree mandated reform. The decree was issued after a blistering justice department investigation into the Chicago police department found excessive, racist force and widespread corruption.
“We are not where we want to be when it comes to police reform and accountability, but we are further along in two-plus years of doing this work than any other city that has been under consent decree,” said the Chicago elder, Lori Lightfoot.
Jamie Kalven, the investigative journalist who broke the Laquan McDonald story and founded the non-profit Invisible Institute, told ABC7 Chicago that despite “discernible progress in some discrete areas, we have thus far failed and our institutions have failed to really rise to that challenge”.
“The verdict is far more important than the sentence, and I’m not sure we’d be in a different place as a city right now if Jason Van Dyke had gotten 12 years or 20 years,” said Kalven.
In October 2014, Van Dyke and another officer responded to calls of a teenager carrying a knife and allegedly damaging cars in the South Side area of Chicago. Within six seconds of exiting his police vehicle, Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times as the teenager was walking away. Many of the bullets hit McDonald’s as he fell to the ground.
Three other police officers, all acquitted of any charges but ultimately fired from the department in 2019, filed false police reports accusing McDonald of lunging towards officers with a knife and failing to interview eyewitnesses who saw the shooting. Discrepancies in their accounts were only uncovered once dash cam footage from Van Dyke’s car showing McDonald’s murder was released.
The murder sparked nationwide protests and global coverage. Many accused then Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was recently confirmed as US ambassador to Japan, of a coverup ahead of his reelection campaign in 2015, after video of the shooting was held for more than a year.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism