The family of a white Chicago police officer who shot a black teenager 16 times has spoken out publicly for the first time since he was charged with murder, defending him as dedicated officer, husband and father who didn't set out to kill anyone.
The wife, father and other relatives of Jason Van Dyke spoke to the Chicago Tribune with the officer's approval for a story published Thursday. Van Dyke, following his attorney's advice, declined to be interviewed.
They described the 38-year-old Van Dyke as a caring father who dotes on his two daughters. A brother-in-law who is black said it's unfair to assume 17-year-old Laquan McDonald's race influenced Van Dyke's decision to use deadly force in the October 2014 encounter.
His wife, Tiffany, said Van Dyke became an officer because he hoped to make a difference. But she said years working in high-crime areas sapped his optimism and left him emotionally closed-off.
"When you start out and you're so optimistic about helping others ... but unfortunately, people don't want the help any longer or they don't trust you to be able to help them, it does change you," she said. "It doesn't make him a bad person ... but it does take a toll and does make a person different."
Police dashcam video of the shooting was released in November on a judge's order after the city fought to keep it from public view. It contradicted accounts by Van Dyke and other officers on the scene that McDonald, who was holding a knife, lunged at officers. Hours before the images became public, prosecutors charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder. He has been suspended with pay since.
Tiffany Van Dyke said she has not watched the video, but acknowledged that she would have to as the trial nears. She said, though, that it won't change her belief that her husband is innocent.
The shooting was the first time Van Dyke fired his weapon in the line of duty during 12 years on patrol. He has 53 commendations, but also 20 formal complaints against him, the Tribune reported, citing department records.
McDonald's great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, said he feels compassion for Van Dyke's family but little sympathy for the officer, who he says acted as "judge, jury and executioner."
Van Dyke's attorney, Daniel Herbert, has said Van Dyke feared for his life and acted properly in the McDonald case.
While responding to a deadly police shooting in 2005, Van Dyke described in a deposition having "tunnel vision" while rushing to a scene after hearing an officer might have been injured. He said his mind went into "fight or flight" mode.
Tiffany, a 35-year-old fitness instructor, said she hopes that speaking out will help people see her husband's human side.
"His favorite thing, he used to say, was he loved to drive through a neighborhood and see someone wave to him and he'd wave back," she said of his early years in policing.
One of his proudest moments, she said, was helping secure the parade route for President Barack Obama's January 2013 inauguration.
Van Dyke's father, Owen Van Dyke, said his only son loved the outdoors and rode his bike from dawn to dusk while growing up in the suburbs.
"What happened is a terrible tragedy, but our son is not a murderer," he wrote in a statement to the Tribune.