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Jason Van Dyke Is More Than a Murderer. He Damaged an Entire City.

Good riddance to a cop who amplified racial tensions and upended Chicago politics.

Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Jason Van Dyke did much more than destroy a young man’s life. He did incalculable damage to the city and police department he was sworn to protect. By murdering (we can finally use that word without fear of libel) Laquan McDonald, he tore at the bonds of trust not only between the people of Chicago and law enforcement, but the people of Chicago and their government. Now that he’s been convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for the 16 shots he fired, he likely won’t be coming back to Chicago for a long, long time, if ever. Good. We’ll be better off without him.

It’s not completely fair to say that Van Dyke destroyed the careers of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. They destroyed their own careers, by covering up the video of McDonald’s murder until a judge forced them to release it. But if the trigger-happy cop had showed up to the scene a few minutes later, after a taser had arrived to subdue McDonald, Emanuel would probably be running for mayor again.

You could argue that the murder Van Dyke committed multiplied itself, by creating the conditions for even more murders. Former Chicago police lieutenant Jackie Campbell told WBEZ for its podcast 16 Shots that after the McDonald video was released — and Van Dyke became the first Chicago police officer in 50 years to be charged with murder for an on-duty shooting — police felt disrespected by the citizenry and demoralized in their jobs. They were worried that they, too, would find themselves in the dock for a split-second error in judgment on the job. So, Campbell said, they pulled back. Crime flourished. In 2016, police stops fell 80 percent, and murders increased by the same percentage, to 762 — more than New York and Los Angeles combined.

The McDonald murder also deepened mistrust between the police and the people in the neighborhoods. The same-year clearance rate for murders has fallen to 17 percent, speaking to the shockingly large number of homicide cases in which no one was arrested.

“There is no relationship between the police department and the community since that video came out,” says Ja’Mal Green, a young activist who led protests of the McDonald murder outside the mayor’s house, and is now running for mayor himself. “The community don’t trust the police even to call 911.”

McDonald’s murder has led to serious efforts at police reform in Chicago. Emanuel convened a Police Accountability Task Force, which issued a report recommending training to eliminate racial bias, establishing a civilian agency to investigate police misconduct, and equipping more police with body cameras. Emanuel also accepted a court-supervised consent decree that will require police to notify dispatchers every time they point a gun at a suspect.

Those are steps toward building a relationship between the police department and the community. (“Rebuilding” is not the right word, because that suggests there was something to build on in the first place.) Van Dyke’s conviction is another step. If he had gone free, no amount of reforms within the department could have convinced Chicagoans that there are consequences for police officers who abuse their authority.

The McDonald murder has also upended Chicago politics. Not only did it force Emanuel from the race, it has made police reform a defining issue for many of the candidates running to succeed him. Lori Lightfoot, who chaired the Police Accountability Task Force, and is now a candidate for mayor, called the verdict “a significant milestone in Chicago’s history.

“Going against a national trend in which juries almost always acquit on-duty police officers on criminal charges, this jury found the evidence powerful and compelling — as have so many Chicagoans in the years since Laquan McDonald’s tragic death,” she writes in a series of tweets. “I hope that this decision marks not just a milestone, but a turning point as well.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle had joined marchers on Michigan Avenue after the murder video was released, called for the firing of McCarthy, and supported Kim Foxx in the Democratic primary against Alvarez. In announcing her campaign for mayor, she condemned police violence that “continues to devastate our black and brown communities.”

Today, Preckwinkle called the verdict “an important indictment not only of the actions of an individual but of the code of silence within the police department. We cannot have safe communities if we do not have a police force accountable to all communities.” (Just for balance here, Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Lodge President Chris Southwood called the outcome a “shameful verdict” of a “sham trial,” and asked, “What cop would still want to be proactive fighting crime after this disgusting charade, and are law abiding citizens read to pay the price?")

Chicago can breathe a sigh of relief. One of the worst cops in the city’s history is going away.

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