Episode 20: Van Dyke Testifies

Episode 20: Van Dyke Testifies

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Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke took the witness stand Tuesday to tell a jury about the night he fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in the middle of a busy street on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

The Oct. 20, 2014, shooting gained national attention more than a year later when a local judge ordered city officials to release a police dashcam video of the white officer shooting the black teenager 16 times.

This episode is part of 16 Shots, a podcast first released in 2018 about the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke, and the troubled relationship between African-Americans and the Chicago Police Department. To hear all the episodes, subscribe on Pocket Casts, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The video appears to show McDonald — who was carrying a knife with a three-inch blade — walking away from Van Dyke moments before the officer opened fire. But Van Dyke, who faces charges of first-degree murder, aggravated battery, and official misconduct, insisted the teen was moving toward him.

“His back never once turned towards me,” Van Dyke said. “He could have made a decision to turn and walk in the other direction; he could have dropped the knife and ended it right there.”

He said McDonald waved a knife as he approached, which can’t be seen in the dashcam video because it was recorded from a different angle. In a surprise, Van Dyke also said that an animated recreation of the shooting from his attorneys wasn’t an accurate representation of his perspective. That animation was produced in an attempt to recreate the shooting from a vantage point over Van Dyke’s shoulder.

Defendants do not have to take the stand, and it remained unknown if Van Dyke would testify until Tuesday afternoon because Judge Vincent Gaughan had kept the witness list secret.

Van Dyke testified for more than an hour, at some moments in tears, while answering questions during the sometimes defensive testimony.

Van Dyke, who has been free on bond for nearly three years while awaiting trial, spoke quietly as he described his career. The officer — who has numerous accommodations and excessive force complaints — said he had “probably” drawn his gun more than 20 times, but had never fired it while on-duty before he shot McDonald.

Van Dyke, 40, detailed how he and his partner heard a call over the police radio for help arresting a suspected radio thief who had “popped” the tire of a police SUV. Upon arrival, Van Dyke said he saw the suspect carrying a knife and another officer with his gun drawn.

Van Dyke, who was riding in the passenger seat of a police SUV, said he initially hoped to knock McDonald down with passenger side door as the SUV passed. Instead, Van Dyke exited the SUV and opened fire about six seconds later.

“[McDonald] had these huge white eyes just staring right through me,” he testified.

Van Dyke said he thought officers were under attack and was trying to stop McDonald from entering a nearby fast food restaurant.

“As an officer, you have a duty not to retreat,” he said “You have a duty to place somebody into custody.”

He said he continued to shoot because he thought the teen was trying to get up with the knife. After initially reporting that he was moving backwards while shooting, he admitted on the stand that after watching the dashcam video “countless times” he now knows he was moving forward.

“I shot at the knife. I wanted him to get rid of the knife. My focus was just on that knife. … That’s all I could think of,” Van Dyke said.

Prosecutors have insisted that Van Dyke didn’t need to fire a single shot, and have called numerous officers from the scene who did not open fire to testify.

The release of the infamous dashcam video sparked days of protests and months of political fallout. The city’s top cop was fired, the local state’s attorney was voted out of office, and the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation that found Chicago police officers were poorly trained.

Prosecutors have shown the video to the jury dozens of times in the weekslong trial.

Here’s a summary of what else happened inside the courtroom on Tuesday.

  • Psychologist Laurence Miller, who interviewed Van Dyke after the shooting, testified that Van Dyke told him that he thought he told his partner he might have to shoot the teen even before they got to the scene. Miller said Van Dyke also wondered why other officers had not already done so.

  • Miller testified that Van Dyke’s shooting of McDonald was a “reasonable response” to what he perceived as a deadly threat.

  • Barry Brodd, a police use of force expert called by Van Dyke’s lawyers, said every shot was justified.

The Associated Press and WBEZ digital producer Gabrielle Wright contributed to this report.

Follow the trial with the 16 Shots podcast.