Ex-Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was set leave prison on Thursday after being locked up less than four years, and in the city that witnessed the historic murder conviction of the first officer for an on-duty shooting in a half century, that release is seen as another chapter in a troubling history of race and policing.
Among many there was hope that Van Dyke's 2018 conviction of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery signaled a willingness to hold officers accountable. But they say word that he's being set free after serving about three years and four months of his sentence of six years and nine months has turned Black teenager Laquan McDonald, and them, into victims again.
“This is the ultimate illustration that Black lives don’t matter as much as other lives,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, a prominent minister on the city’s West Side. “To get that short amount of time for a murder sends a bad message to the community.”
Early Thursday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made a similar point.
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“I understand why this continues to feel like a miscarriage of justice, especially when many Black and brown men get sentenced to so much more prison time for having committed far lesser crimes,” she said in a statement.
To give the teen and the community the justice it hoped it had with Van Dyke's conviction, the NAACP this week asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to bring federal civil rights charges against Van Dyke, who is white. McDonald's grandmother, Tracie Hunter, has asked for the same thing.
Whether those charges are coming is unknown. But what's clear is that Van Dyke's release comes at a perilous time for the city and its police force. Chicago is experiencing a surge in violent crime and had more homicides last year than in any of in the last quarter century. The city continues to pay multi-million settlements to victims of police abuse. And just this week, prosecutors said they would vacate the convictions of nearly 50 more people who were framed or falsely accused by police of drug crimes.
To be sure, the 2014 shooting eventually led to a court-ordered consent decree that resulted in several reforms, including the creation of a civilian-led police oversight board and new rules governing investigations into police shootings. And after the city refused to release the police video of McDonald’s killing for more than a year and only did so after a judge ordered it to do so, it now must release such videos within 60 days.
But, while Lightfoot in her statement pointed to “historic reforms” the city has made, changes have come slower than expected and the city has struggled to meet some of the consent decree’s deadlines. Not only that, but just as then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel fought in court the release of the McDonald video, Lightfoot’s administration tried to prevent a TV station from airing video of a botched police raid in which an innocent Black woman was handcuffed while naked. Ultimately, the botched raid led to a $2.9 million settlement with the woman, Anjanette Young.
To Hatch and others, Van Dyke’s early release is another reminder of what they already knew.
“It just reinforces this feeling of hopelessness in African American communities, and reinforces the thought that police can continue their oppressive behavior in those communities and be either exonerated or given light sentences,” said Chico Tillmon, a senior research fellow at the University of Chicago Crime Lab and a former gang member.
“I served 16 years and 3 months for conspiracy to sell drugs and somebody who committed murder, openly, publicly, did 3 1/2 years,” he said. “This kind of thing happens over and over.”
Hatch’s anger stems in part from a sense that the criminal justice system came tantalizingly close to finally working for a Black victim of police violence before the judge called a legal audible by sentencing Van Dyke only for second-degree murder — a charge that allows defendants to serve half their sentences if they behave in prison — and not any of the 16 counts of aggravated battery.
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who helped lead the push to force the city to release the video, agrees, calling the sentence “a slap in the face for Black folks and those of us who care about police accountability.”
But at the same time, Futterman said, “It was next to unbelievable that there was a prosecution and a conviction for murder.”
And although McDonald’s great uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, believes the sentence was woefully inadequate, he said it doesn’t take away from the significance of the case.
“Had Jason Van Dyke gotten one day in jail it would have been a victory because he was the first,” said Hunter. “Since then, police across the country are getting convicted of murdering Black people.”
Joseph McMahon, the special prosecutor who led a team of attorneys that secured Van Dyke’s conviction and who asked the judge to impose an 18-20 year sentence, said he hopes people don’t think Van Dyke escaped punishment.
“I know this is difficult to accept, especially for minority communities marginalized by police and the criminal justice system for decades, but this (the conviction and sentence) is a sign of progress,” he said.
“Any length of time for a former cop is difficult,” McMahon added. “He was physically attacked, spent most of the time in isolation and that is the result of the very real danger he faced day in and day out for the last 3 1/2 years.”
The way Hatch sees it, Van Dyke’s release couldn’t come at a worse time for the police department, which has been scrambling to regain public trust that the McDonald case helped shatter.
“They’re trying to restore faith in law enforcement and now we have this?” he said. “And it will absolutely make it harder to get people to come with complaints about cops.”