In 2014, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke brutally murdered Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old Black youth, shooting him 16 times, most after he had already fallen to the pavement. Incredulously no charges were brought against the officer until public protests forced the release of the dash-cam video, showing the youth walking diagonally away from the police officers.
Officer Van Dyke was finally charged, tried, and convicted in 2018; however, the judge sentenced him to only 81 months in prison. This sentence was seen as so inadequate that prosecutors—in a rare move–asked the Supreme Court of Illinois to review this sentence.
Three officers at the scene of the killing had proclaimed that McDonald committed aggravated assaults against them, so Van Dyke, in defense of his life, had to shoot and kill McDonald. Prosecutors had called this a lie beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the judge in the case ruled in favor of the three officers despite the fact the video showed he was nowhere near the officers.
A year ago, Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man holding a cellphone, was shot to death by Sacramento police in the backyard of his grandparents’ home. Their explanation: They perceived that Clark had a firearm. They thought they were being fired on, and they returned fire to save their lives and to protect the community.
Please note that two police officers fired at him 20 times. The autopsy showed that Clark was shot six times in the back. This month prosecutors in the case announced there would be no charges against the two officers who killed Stephon Clark.
Thus, we have police officers, in effect, executing young black men, and prosecutors failing to prosecute. Of course in the Laquan McDonald case prosecution was forced by the public and the prosecutor was replaced in the following election.
Then we have judges ruling with the law as they see it. Apparently, the law says if a police officer expresses fear for their life—no matter how unreasonable the case for fear—they have a right to shoot to kill.
The bottom line here is that the criminal justice system is extremely reluctant to punish officers for killings for which regular citizens would be easily prosecuted and convicted.
A key point is that cities know that much of the public has a different idea. So they provide cash settlements to families of black victims without trials—an admission that something is wrong.
Here is a list of some recent African Americans killed by police and reported cash settlements to bereaved families:
• Sandra Bland – $1.9 million
• Freddie Gray – $6.4 million
• Tamir Rice – $6 million
• Laquan McDonald – $5 million
• Eric Garner – $5.9
• Philando Castle – $3 million
It seems that now is the time for cities to bring their criminal justice systems more in line with their perceptions of harm.