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After historic Van Dyke verdict, Chicagoans look to the future

Why We Wrote This

To those advocating for police reforms in Chicago, the rare murder conviction of a Chicago officer is seen as a steppingstone toward a fairer justice system. What might come next?

Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times/AP
Protesters rally outside the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Oct. 4, 2018, during closing arguments in the trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Mr. Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder in the 2014 shooting death of teen Laquan McDonald.

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Jedidiah Brown rushed to the courthouse when he heard that a verdict was imminent in police officer Jason Van Dyke’s trial for the shooting of Laquan McDonald. For the first time in 50 years, an officer was found guilty of murder for an on-duty shooting. “It looks like a new day in America,” said Mr. Brown, an organizer. But within minutes, he was focused on what comes next. “Now it’s time to get the reform.” The course of that progress is still uncertain. The City of Chicago and the Illinois attorney general have agreed to enforce reforms suggested by the Department of Justice after their investigation into the police department. That draft consent decree is currently open to public comment, and a judge will ultimately decide whether to approve it. Crime in Chicago has dropped in 2018, with the murder rate estimated to fall 23 percent by the end of the year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. But relations between officers and communities like the one Laquan came from remain tense. “While the jury has heard the case and reached their conclusion, our collective work is not done,” said Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who called on the public and police to hear and partner with each other. “The effort to drive lasting reform and rebuild bonds of trust between residents and police must carry on with vigor.”

At the front of a crowd of 200 people in Chicago on Friday, Antonio Magitt was still in shock. For the first time in 50 years, a Chicago police officer had been found guilty of murder for an on-duty shooting.

Many businesses and schools had closed early in anticipation of unrest following the verdict in the Jason Van Dyke trial and the streets were eerily quiet that afternoon, despite the marchers.

“I’m relieved,” Mr. Magitt, a youth organizer, said. “All of our hard work has paid off. This is progress.”

Magritt, a South Side native, said that he had been protesting on the streets since the release of the video in 2015 that showed Mr. Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, and that he plans to keep organizing.

“As long as we keep doing this work, the Chicago police department will change for the better,” he said. “The city needs to start investing in our streets, instead of policing our trauma.”

The Laquan McDonald shooting rocked Chicago. It took more than a year of protests from journalists and activists for the city to release the dash cam video, and once it did, hundreds of people took to the streets again to demand justice.

The police superintendent was quickly fired. The Department of Justice came to town to investigate the police department. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat whose office was accused of covering up the shooting, announced he wasn’t going to seek a third term.

Now, the city is taking stock of the past four years and looking to the future.

A jury convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. When the verdict was announced Friday afternoon, the crowd outside the criminal courthouse in Chicago erupted in cheers.

“It looks like a new day in America,” organizer Jedidiah Brown told a dozen activists who stood outside a police barricade. “Let’s go celebrate somewhere!”

Mr. Brown, like many who rushed to the courthouse when the judge announced a decision was imminent, has been organizing around police reform for years. Just minutes after hearing the verdict, his mind was on what’s next.

“Now it’s time to get the reform,” said Brown. “It’s time to change the policy. It’s time to change the people who are elected.”

A call for public-police partnership

In a statement Friday, Mayor Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson called on the public and police to hear and partner with each other.

“While the jury has heard the case and reached their conclusion, our collective work is not done,” said Mr. Johnson. “The effort to drive lasting reform and rebuild bonds of trust between residents and police must carry on with vigor.”

The course of that progress is still uncertain. The City of Chicago and the Illinois attorney general have agreed to enforce reforms suggested by the Department of Justice after their investigation into the police department. That draft consent decree is currently open to public comment, and a judge will ultimately decide whether to approve the decree. Adding to the uncertainty of the matter is the fact that both Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who negotiated the consent decree, are not seeking reelection.  Implementing it will be left up to their successors.

On Monday, President Trump cast doubt on reform and criticized a 2015 agreement made between the American Civil Liberties Union and the city to reform the police department’s use of “stop and frisk,” or investigatory street stops. The president said that he’s asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s office to “go to the great city of Chicago to help straighten out the terrible shooting wave.” “I’ve told them to work with local authorities to try to change the horrible deal the city of Chicago’s entered into with ACLU, which ties law enforcement’s hands, and to strongly consider ‘stop and frisk,’ ” said Mr. Trump, speaking to a gathering of law enforcement officers. “It was meant for problems like Chicago. It was meant for it. Stop and frisk!”

Crime in Chicago actually has dropped in 2018, with the murder rate estimated to fall 23 percent by the end of the year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Shootings are down 17 percent for the first nine months of 2018, the Chicago Tribune reports.

But relations between officers and communities like the one Laquan came from remain tense. Some predict a backlash from the police after the verdict and increased resistance to reforms. On Friday, a representative from the Illinois police union threatened a work slowdown.

“This sham trial and shameful verdict is a message to every law enforcement officer in America that it’s not the perpetrator in front of you that you need to worry about, it’s the political operatives stabbing you in the back,” Illinois Fraternal Order of Police President Chris Southwood said in a statement. “What cop would still want to be proactive fighting crime after this disgusting charade, and are law abiding citizens ready to pay the price?”

But on Friday, some Chicagoans said they welcomed the message the verdict sent. Jermont Montgomery held back tears as he watched others rejoice outside the courthouse where the Van Dyke trial was held. Mr. Montgomery participated in the Black Friday march against police brutality in 2015 that shut down Michigan Avenue and cost retailers 25 to 50 percent of their sales in the normally busy shopping district.

“Laquan McDonald right now represents everyone,” Montgomery said. “Every last one of these officers and everyone across the nation will know now you can’t just take our lives without repercussions.”

‘We have to deal with the culture’

On the West Side, where Laquan grew up, news of the verdict spread quickly. The area has become a flashpoint for police reform, with a $95 million proposed police academy sparking clashes between protesters and politicians.

The plan for the academy was developed after the Department of Justice found that the police department’s current training facilities were woefully inadequate. Critics argue that the money used for it could be better spent on schools and social safety nets. Chicago spends 39 percent of its budget on policing, almost five times the portion New York City spends.

Marshall Hatch is pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Church, just a mile away from the site of the proposed training facility. He called the Van Dyke verdict “good and just,” though he says he feels bad for Van Dyke’s family.

“Our attention goes now to the consent decree,” says the pastor. “The consent decree gives us an opportunity to deal with the protocols of the police department and how police are tracked and supervised. We have to deal with the culture.”

Mr. Hatch said that he is concerned about what the impact of a police slowdown would be for his neighborhood, which already suffers from a high level of gun violence.

“That will leave everyone in danger,” he said.

Instead, he hopes that the police will respect the verdict.

“I think we need to move on now. Some of us are ready to focus on radical reform of the police department. It’s a long, long road ahead.”

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