Chicago officer charged with murder over black teen's death; video of shooting released

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.
Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.PHOTO: AFP

CHICAGO (Reuters/AFP) - A white Chicago policeman was charged on Tuesday (Nov 25) with murder over a black teenager's death that was caught on a recently released video, a prosecution that was speeded up in hopes of staving off a fresh burst of the turmoil over race and police use of deadly force that has shaken the United States for more than a year.

Officer Jason Van Dyke, 37, was denied bail at a hearing in Chicago's main criminal courthouse hours after top Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez announced charges of first-degree murder. If convicted, Van Dyke could face 20 years to life in prison.

At the brief court hearing, prosecutor Bill Delaney told Cook County Circuit Court Associate Judge Donald Panarese that a video of the Oct 20, 2014 shooting does not show Laquan McDonald, 17, who was armed with a knife, advancing on Van Dyke, and that witnesses concur on that fact.

McDonald was shot 16 times by Van Dyke, who emptied his gun and prepared to reload, prosecutors said. Van Dyke has said through his lawyer and the police union that the shooting was justified because he felt threatened by McDonald.

"Clearly, this officer went overboard and he abused his authority, and I don't think use of force was necessary,"Ms Alvarez said at a news conference after the hearing.

The judge scheduled another hearing for Monday and asked to see the video then in order to reconsider the issue of bond.

Chicago's mayor appealed for calm as officials released the "chilling" video of the shooting on Tuesday, hours after the officer was charged with murder.

"I understand people will be upset and will want to protest when they see this video," Mayor Rahm Emanuel told reporters. "It is fine to be passionate, but it is essential that it remains peaceful."

Van Dyke has had 20 misconduct complaints made against him during the past 4.5 years, none of which led to any discipline from the Chicago Police Department, according to research by Dr Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor and expert on police accountability issues.

"The Chicago Police Department refuses to look at potential patterns of misconduct complaints when investigating police misconduct," Dr Futterman said. "If the department did look at these patterns when investigating police abuse, there is a great chance right now that 17-year-old boy would still be alive."

He believes Van Dyke is the first Chicago police officer to be criminally charged for an on-duty shooting.

Ms Alvarez also said prosecutors moved up the timing of the charges ahead of the release of the video. "With release of this video it's really important for public safety that the citizens of Chicago know that this officer is being held responsible for his actions," she said.

Last week, a court ordered the release of the video, taken by a police patrol car's dashboard camera. The police union objects to its release.

McDonald's death came at a time of intense national debate over police use of deadly force, especially against minorities. A number of US cities have seen protests over police violence in the past 18 months, some of them fueled by video of the deaths.

The uproar was a factor in the rise of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement and has become an issue in the 2016 US presidential election campaign.

In Minnesota on Tuesday, police arrested two men, one white and one Hispanic, related to the shooting of five people near a Minneapolis police station where demonstrators have gathered for more than a week to protest the shooting of an unarmed black man by officers.

McDonald's family called for calm, as did city authorities and black community leaders. "No one understands the anger more than us, but if you choose to speak out, we urge you to be peaceful. Don't resort to violence in Laquan's name. Let his legacy be better than that," McDonald's family said in a statement through their lawyer.

In Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, family appeals for peace were not always heeded.

Black community leaders in Chicago said they feared violent protests in reaction to the video, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel appealed for calm.

Politicians and church leaders in the Austin neighborhood urged potential demonstrators to protest peacefully. "We feel your pain, but we challenge you to turn your pain into power. We know protests are coming, please allow them to be peaceable," the Reverend Ira Acree said at a news conference.

Police shootings are frequent in Chicago, the third-largest city in the United States with 2.7 million people, roughly one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic.

From 2008 to 2014 there were an average of 17 fatal shootings by police each year, according to data from the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police misconduct.

Almost all shootings, fatal and non-fatal, are found to be justified.

Prosecutor Delaney told the judge that Van Dyke's partner, identified as "Officer A", saw Van Dyke preparing to reload his weapon and told him to hold fire.

Prosecutors said that McDonald was on the ground for 13 seconds between the time he first hit the ground and the moment Van Dyke stopped shooting.

Van Dyke's lawyer Daniel Herbert said his client would prevail in court. "This is a case that can't be tried in the streets, it can't be tried in the media, and it can't be tried on Facebook," Mr Herbert said.

Van Dyke, who wore a brown sweatshirt and faded blue jeans as he stood with his hands behind his back in court, has been on administrative duty. Federal prosecutors were also investigating the shooting.

The altercation between McDonald and police officers on Chicago's south-west side began with a call that a knife-wielding man was trying to break into trucks to steal radios.

Chicago police have said McDonald threatened them with a knife and slashed at the tires and windshield of a patrol car. McDonald ignored a warning to drop the knife, officials said.

The city has already paid McDonald's family a US$5 million civil settlement even though they did not file a lawsuit.