The officer accused in the violent shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was no stranger to the agency responsible for investigating complaints against Chicago Police.
City records indicate at least 20 citizen complaints have been filed against officer Jason Van Dyke since he joined the Chicago Police Department in the summer of 2001. Four of those appear to be open investigations, but none of the others resulted in discipline against the officer.
A freelance Chicago journalist who won a landmark case forcing the release of over 50,000 complaint records, including Van Dyke’s, argues the shooting of LaQuan McDonald is a textbook example of how the system drags its feet in investigations of potential police misconduct.
“If this were a gang shooting, this would have been tied up quickly,” says Jamie Kalven, a founder of the non-profit Invisible Institute, which has put the complaints online. “I think there’s a pattern of ‘investigation as coverup.’ As long as you can say there is a pending investigation, you don’t have to acknowledge the reality of what happened.”
Early Tuesday, Van Dyke’s wife set up a GoFundMe page, hoping to raise at least $80,000 for his defense.
“With the holidays approaching,” she said, “our husband and father needs to be home with his family.”
But by early afternoon, the page had been taken down, after netting over $10,000 in contributions. A spokesman for GoFundMe cited a policy prohibiting fundraising for the “defense of anyone alleged to be involved in criminal activity.”
The site said all donations would be refunded to the donors.
At the Leighton Criminal Courts Building, the chief of Van Dyke’s union urged restraint.
“We’re concerned about the officer’s safety,” said Dean Angelo, President of the Fraternal Order of Police. “We’re concerned about his family.”
Angelo called Tuesday a “tough time for police.”
“We are standing by officer Van Dyke in the performance of his duty at this stage,”
At the Invisible Institute meanwhile, researchers suggested the Van Dyke case is a cautionary tale about the need to more rigorously investigate complaints which they believe are dismissed far too quickly.
“He’s what we call a repeater,” says the site’s Alison Flowers. “He’s on our repeater list, which means ten or more complaints.”
She notes that in actuality, most police officers, as many as 80 percent, have zero to four complaints for the entirety of their careers. But with the remaining 20 percent making up the majority of the misconduct reports, Flowers argues that an analysis of the data dispels the notion of a “few bad apples.”
“There are barrels of bad apples,” she says.
Kalven, who won the court case freeing up the reports, is also quick to point out that most officers serve long careers with relatively few complaints.
“The lion’s share of complaints is accounted for with a relatively small number of officers,” he says.
But even as he defended the best officers on the Chicago force, Kalven argued that the Independent Police Review Authority needed to be held more accountable for their own investigations. And he suggested Van Dyke was a classic example.
“Consider what might have happened if there was a functioning disciplinary system that was monitoring patterns,” he said. “(They might see) officers that were in high level of complaints, and note that ‘Hey, there’s something that we should look at with this officer.’
“Perhaps LaQuan McDonald would be alive today,” Kalven said. “A well-functioning disciplinary system would allow a police department to intervene, and keep small things from becoming big things.”
Van Dyke's attorney, Dan Herbert, has argued the video alone is not enough to determine if Van Dyke "acted inappropriately" when he fatally shot McDonald, though he has described the footage as "graphic and violent" and "difficult to watch." He said outside the courtroom Tuesday that the case needs to be tried in a courtroom, "not in the streets or in the media."