It is a tragedy we relive every day in this country. A child—a 17-year-old boy—murdered the police. We know the ending by now; the family morns their son, a life ended far too early, while the cop is excused and honored for his “service,” all while vilifying the dead and claiming they acted in self-defense. But we are sick of this ending, and we finally have the chance to decide that the shooter is the guilty party.
The Chicago Tribune recently released an interview with Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is awaiting trial for the murder of Laquan McDonald, who was another Chicago child to be taken by the hands of an irrational cop. Despite Van Dyke being the first Chicago police officer in decades to be charged with murder for an “on-duty shooting,” the article paints him in a victim’s light.
Van Dyke does not deserve this treatment. Laquan McDonald does.
The events of Oct. 20, 2014 are inexcusable. For Van Dyke and other officers on the scene, McDonald, a 17-year-old with a 4-inch knife, posed a threat to three heavily-armed, adults. According to them, he was lunging with the knife at Van Dyke, attempting to “kill” him. However, in the footage of the shooting McDonald is cornered by three police cars, and while he does pull out his knife, it is clear that he is moving away from the police. There is no lunging, no attacks, nothing.
It only takes Van Dyke 15 seconds to end McDonald’s life. The child fell to the ground after the first bullet, but Van Dyke continued to shoot him 15 more times as he was lying on the pavement. In this case, who is the threat?
Van Dyke and his lawyers state that (at the time) the 37-year-old trained police officer was “in fear for his life.” Yet, it’s puzzling that a man so much older, with a gun and three other officers around him would be scared of a child.
Van Dyke’s interview paints him this way. He is the regretful, scared, and hurting father of two who “prays every day” for McDonald’s family. In the article he is a humble American doing his duty to protect the people of Chicago. However, this does not erase his character on that night.
This faded portrayal of Van Dyke is not all that the interview fails to address. Instead, we’ll list what they omitted here, as well as propose a larger dialogue for the nation.
In the interview Van Dyke states that “any loss of life is extremely difficult” and that no officer ever wants to “shoot their gun.” These sentiments are followed by his explanation that before the shooting he was clouded by his emotions and the adrenaline of the situation.
Yes, Van Dyke is human and yes, humans act irrationally. But he is an officer of the law, and no officer should be put in the field if they cannot rationally focus with these emotions clouding their judgment. However, since these officers are human beings and they do act on misguided instincts, then why should they be so heavily armed? If we cannot trust them to work in high-pressure situations, then spare the lives of future children and teach them to use a Taser instead of a gun.
Next is Van Dyke’s claim that “anyone who knows me… knows that I’m not a racist” is muddled. By now it is clear that everyone has some kind of racial bias because of our racist upbringings as a nation. While it can be true that Van Dyke is not a racist, it can also be true that Van Dyke would have treated the situation differently had McDonald been a white teenager with a knife rather than a black one.
Also, it is important to note that according to Van Dyke’s personnel file, the officer had been accused of using racial slurs on two separate occasions.
Finally, the Tribune notes that Illinois law, “police officers can use any force necessary to ‘defend (themselves) or another from bodily harm’.” This law protects Van Dyke and other officers who use the phrase “self-defense” to excuse the use of excessive force. This is to say that there is an issue much bigger than Van Dyke, and it is our laws. In combination with many other changes, we as a people also need to address the legal leeway that police officers are given in this country.
This response is not meant to demonize all police officers. Those who pledge to protect every single individual and put themselves in danger should not be tainted by this image. This response is also not meant to minimize the pain that Van Dyke has said that he feels daily, nor the regret that he should live with.
This response is meant to put this tragedy in context; a grown, trained police officer shot a child. That act should forever be unforgivable and inexcusable. Van Dyke and all other officers who act out of irrational fear should not be given the benefit of the doubt. Van Dyke murdered McDonald, and his actions should have consequences.
As Patricia Brown Holmes, the special prosecutor on the case, said, “While they are sworn to serve and protect, as well as uphold the law, they are not above the law.” As citizens and members of the media we must place value in these words in the hopes that they will prove true.