Chicago Police And The Black Community: The Murder Trial Of Laquan McDonald

Chicago Police And The Black Community: The Murder Trial Of Laquan McDonald

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NPR’s Michel Martin talks with Jenn White, the host of “16 Shots,” a podcast from WBEZ and The Chicago Tribune, about the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and the city’s long history of division between law enforcement and African-Americans.


We go to Chicago now to revisit a story that is unique in its own details, and yet, it’s one in which the broad outlines have been repeated all too often. This story starts in October, 2014.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This guy’s walking away. He’s got a knife in his hand.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Anybody have a Taser? How about a 401 Keiller for 815 Robert (ph)? Looking for a Taser, armed offender.

MARTIN: That is the sound of patrol units and a police dispatcher responding to reports that a black teenager was breaking into cars and carrying a knife. Officer Jason Van Dyke arrived at the scene just a few seconds later. He fired 16 shots at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, killing him. Now, what’s different about this compared to a lot of other stories like it is that Van Dyke is heading to trial. In 2015, he was charged with murder, and the trial is set to begin this week. Member station WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune are reporting on this trial through a podcast called “16 Shots.” Jenn White is the host of “16 Shots,” and she is with us now. Jenn, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JENN WHITE, BYLINE: Oh, my pleasure.

MARTIN: So, first of all, could you remind us - for people who don’t live in Chicago - the initial reaction to Laquan McDonald’s shooting was? And I don’t want to say muted, but it wasn’t overwhelming. And that all changed when there was video of the shooting that was released. What happened then? What was the fallout and why?

WHITE: When the shooting originally occurred, the story that was told and recorded by officers in their reports was that Laquan McDonald lunged at officers, that he battered three officers and that Jason Van Dyke shot in self-defense. And that story pretty much stood until the dashcam video was released over a year later. People saw that those reports didn’t actually line up with what the video said. In the video, you see Laquan McDonald, it seems, moving away from officers. And there’s several other discrepancies in that video.

So initially, media - and this is something that we’ve talked about in our own newsroom - basically took the police version of this story, and that was what we reported. But, later on, the autopsy was released after some investigation by a journalist who wrote an article for Slate - his name is Jamie Kalven - and talked about what the autopsy showed, which was that some of the shots actually entered through Laquan McDonald’s back. So that was sort of the first indication that maybe that initial story didn’t actually line up with what happened.

We learned that there were witnesses - civilian witnesses on the scene - who were directed away from this shooting, whose testimonies were not recorded, and others who later said that they were pressured to change their statements in interviews with the police.

MARTIN: One of the things that’s powerful about the podcast to me is that you talk to people who were connected to these events, and you get to hear their feelings about it and how they’re living with it as individuals. And I just want to play some tape of a conversation between WBEZ reporters Patrick Smith and Shannon Heffernan and two friends of Laquan McDonald’s, Christian Poole (ph) and Aaron Wilson (ph).


SHANNON HEFFERNAN, BYLINE: Do you watch the video again, or…

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No, I don’t. I don’t want to see it no more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I ain’t watched the video…

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And then, like, every time I turn on the news, and they talk about him - like, are y’all have to keep steady showing that [expletive] that [expletive] be bringing memories and memories - the memory of him getting killed.

WHITE: What you hear in that tape is not just their reaction to Laquan’s death, but they talk about actually having other friends, other people they cared about, also being the victims of police shootings. These young men talk about the trauma. They talk about how they do take drugs to deal with the stress and the trauma. Laquan McDonald himself had been diagnosed with PTSD. These are young men who are experiencing a great deal of pain. And, so often, when these stories are told, that pain is overlooked or minimized.

This young man - he did have a troubled background. He was struggling with certain things. But there were people who loved him. There were people who miss him. He left a hole behind in his neighborhood and his community.

MARTIN: And “16 Shots,” the podcast, also features a conversation between Officer Van Dyke and Chicago Tribune reporter Christy Gutowski. And this is the first interview that officer Van Dyke has given. This is nearly four years after Laquan’s death, and it’s controversial because the prosecuting attorneys are asking the officer to be held in contempt of court and jailed for participating in this interview. And I just want to play a little bit of the tape.


CHRISTY GUTOWSKI: What is one of your darkest moments?

JASON VAN DYKE: Obviously, my darkest day was the night of the shooting. Overwhelming amounts of everything at once - emotions, adrenaline. You know, I…

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Don’t get in too about it.

MARTIN: So you’re hearing at the end there one of Mr. Van Dyke’s lawyers jumping in. And you disclose that this interview, this whole scene, was fairly tightly controlled - that questions were demanded in advance, which is highly unusual. I mean, generally, I just have to say most reporters would not agree to that in the current environment. That just isn’t something that most reporters would agree to do. And that - they crossed certain ones out. They jumped in quite a bit, as I understand it from the way this was recounted. But tell me about that.

WHITE: So we really wrestled with whether and how to use this audio for exactly the reasons you described. And we came down to a few key issues. One was that the interview was going to be out there. Regardless of whether or not we used it, it was going to be in the public eye. And so we wanted to know, first of all, if it gave us insight into the defense strategy that his attorneys were likely to use.

But we also thought it was important to give some context around some of the statements that he made in that interview. So, for instance, he says, you know, I’m a good cop. I always deescalated situations when he was policing. When you look at his personnel records, however, it shows about 20 citizen complaints against him, at least one with racial overtones. It also shows that there were lawsuits against him. One citizen was awarded $350,000 for an injury he sustained when he was cuffed very roughly by Officer Van Dyke.

So we thought, is there a way for us to basically interrogate the interview itself, if that makes sense, and to provide people context that if - especially if you’re outside of Chicago, and you’re coming into this story, and you’re going to be following the trial - because stories like this so often get told in a binary, how do we provide context around Jason Van Dyke in the same way we’re able to build context around Laquan McDonald?

MARTIN: Well, as this trial is about to begin, can you just give us a sense of what the mood is?

WHITE: You know, one thing for people to know is that this trial is happening within a much larger, longer, deeper context when it comes to policing and communities here in Chicago. As a result of the Laquan McDonald shooting, the Justice Department actually conducted a very intense and in-depth investigation into CPD. It was released in 2017, and it showed a pattern and practice of abusive policing in black neighborhoods. This didn’t come to any surprise to people who have complained about this issue for decades, but it was official record. So it’s happening within that context.

It’s also happening within the context of a mayoral election. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is up for re-election. It’s a very wide field at this point. So the sense is that this verdict, whatever it is, will mark something of a turning point for the city. It will indicate certain things to police officers. It will indicate something else to community members depending upon what that verdict is.

So - and I think, as we get deeper into the testimony, and we start to see the case that the defense is making, whether as the victim - his character is put on trial, I think that is going to feed into a great deal of tension in the city and build that tension. It’s already here. It already exists. But I think there’s also quite a bit of concern about what that verdict will mean for the relationship between police and communities and in what kind of fallout we might see as a result.

MARTIN: That’s Jenn White. She’s the host of “16 Shots.” That’s a podcast by WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune examining the shooting of Laquan McDonald and the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke.

Jenn, thanks so much for talking with us.

WHITE: Thank you, Michel.

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