Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald is just one, if exceptionally tragic, incident among many in recent years.
This story was updated at 7:41 p.m. Tuesday to include the video of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, which was released to the public Tuesday evening. The video (scroll down) contains graphic scenes of violence.
Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke turned himself in to state investigators Tuesday, over a year after he shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in an execution-style manner, according to witnesses. Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting, with no bond—the first time a Chicago cop has been charged with murder while on duty in roughly 35 years, according to The Chicago Tribune.
A video shows Van Dyke shooting McDonald multiple times, pausing briefly, and then pumping more shots into the teenager’s body as it lay in the street. Van Dyke shot McDonald, who was roaming the streets possibly with a knife, 16 times in all. The video was withheld from public viewing, until today, in part due to the ongoing investigation, and in part because McDonald’s family settled their civil case with the city for a reported $5 million. Perhaps the primary reason the video wasn’t publicized is because Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other city officials feared that the gruesome content could possibly spark a violent response, as seen recently in Ferguson and Baltimore.
A judge ruled last week that the video must be made public, and it was released today (November 24).
According to the Tribune, Emanuel is seeking to “frame the issue as the actions of one bad officer.”
But data recently obtained by the Citizens Police Data Project show that there are quite a few bad officers in the Chicago Police Department, many of whom have exhibited patterns of misconduct without punishment. University of Chicago Law School professor Craig Futterman and the Invisible Institute, a journalism nonprofit, has published visualizations of the Chicago police misconduct data, including a set that names police officers who’ve been the subject of complaints, how many complaints each has received, and how often they’ve been disciplined.
The biggest takeaway is that it appears from the data that Chicago cops are rarely punished, even when found culpable for the misconduct they’re accused of. Van Dyke was the subject of 17 citizen complaints in the years before he killed McDonald, though he was not penalized for any of them. The data profile below, also from Futterman’s project, shows another police officer, Raymond Piwincki, who’s had 68 complaints filed against him, but has only been penalized twice.
Futterman is working with data provided by the Chicago Police Department via FOIA requests. The information is not complete and only covers the periods 2002 to 2008 and 2011 to 2015. A disclaimer on the site says that some of the information obtained from the city might be inaccurate. Still, what data they were able to get their hands on is significant. As University of Pittsburgh Law School professor and police expert David A. Harris told The New York Times about Futterman’s project, “It is very unusual to have this much data—and data this rich.”
The data project tracks over 56,000 allegations of police misconduct, 28,567 of which occurred between March 2011 and September 2015. Less than two percent of those resulted in a punishment against the officer in question, according to the project.
When police were disciplined, it was mostly for illegal arrests, personnel violations and other procedural matters related to arrests. Those punishments most often took the form of a suspension from police duties for less than a week, or a reprimand. Only 33 of the cases that the project had access to led to an officer being fired. Van Dyke was not fired after killing McDonald, but instead was assigned to desk duty.
In just over 60 percent of the cases Futterman’s team examined, the person filing the complaint was black, while in half of those cases the officer was white.
In the Van Dyke case, the city is still preparing itself for possible unrest once the video of McDonald’s killing is released. Adding to the tension are allegations that police may have significantly edited the tape. What Futterman’s data shows is that however Chicago residents react, they won’t just be responding to this one incident, but rather years of unanswered police misconduct. As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell recently wrote, “There’s a lot more than the number of bullets fired that we all should be outraged about when it comes to the killing of Laquan McDonald.”