By Javanna Plummer and Becky Dernbach
Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a “statement of interest” Friday opposing a consent decree to reform the Chicago Police Department, one week after the conviction of white police officer Jason Van Dyke for second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the 2014 death of black teenager Laquan McDonald.
As the Department of Justice announced its formal opposition to the consent decree, Van Dyke’s defense attorney, Daniel Herbert, said he planned to appeal the verdict. However, many Chicago residents and elected officials expressed hope that the guilty verdict could be the beginning of wider police reform after decades of scandals in the CPD.
The consent decree covers comprehensive reforms that include use of force and force reporting, accountability and transparency, training, and crisis intervention,
At the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, activists were stunned by the historic verdict and vowed further change.
“Everything changes after today,” Chicago activist Will Calloway pronounced outside the courthouse.
Calloway worked with independent journalist Brandon Smith to force the CPD to release the dashcam footage of the incident. Due in part to the work of Calloway and other organizers, McDonald’s death came to symbolize the tensions between Chicago’s Black community and the CPD.
Nearly three years ago, the shocking dashcam footage of Van Dyke fatally shooting McDonald 16 times was released after it was suppressed by city officials for more than a year. Outrage over the video led to criminal charges for three other officers at the scene who allegedly aided in the cover-up. These officers are charged with conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice. Their trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 26.
The dashcam footage also prompted a DOJ investigation under then-president Barack Obama, leading to a scathing report on the CPD’s practices. The DOJ report, released in the final week of the Obama administration, set the stage for the consent decree to overhaul the CPD.
The proposed 226-page consent decree, an agreement between Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to reform the CPD based on those recommendations, is now in its final stages. If adopted, the decree would be enforced by a federal judge and an independent monitor. A two-day public hearing on the proposed consent decree is scheduled for Oct. 24 and 25.
However, President Donald Trump’s DOJ is taking a different approach. In a statement of interest, Sessions argued that a consent decree does not make sense for Chicago at this time. “The Proposed Consent Decree currently before the Court will not permit local leaders the flexibility they need to proactively adjust law enforcement strategies to address the crime wave across the City,” Sessions wrote, relying on outdated data that showed an increase in homicides and other violent crime using statistics from 2015 to 2016.
As of Oct. 14, the number of Chicago homicides in 2018 has decreased 28 percent from the same point in 2016, according to the Chicago Tribune’s homicide data tracker.
Emanuel, Madigan and CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson all criticized Sessions’ plan to intervene in the consent decree. Madigan said on WBEZ’s Morning Shift that the Fraternal Order of Police had been pushing Trump’s DOJ to try to stop the consent decree, but she remains optimistic that it will be adopted.
To some Chicago organizers, a consent decree is a necessary step forward.
“We’re going to be be out here marching with our people and talking about how we can hold police accountable,” said Parrish Brown, 22, who works with Black Youth Project 100.
Brown, who attended a City Hall post-verdict rally, said he was glad for the guilty verdict but added that it is not enough, which is why BYP100 will continue pushing for policy changes like the consent decree. Brown said BYP100 will also work to eliminate the gang database, which is a massive index of suspected gang members. Donta Lucas, a Chicago man who was misidentified as a gang member, plans on filing a class-action lawsuit against the city, since, according to him, the database is inaccurate and targets Black and non-Black Latinx individuals, who make up 95 percent of it, the Tribune reported.
BYP100 is not the only organization pushing for further policy changes following this historic verdict.
Keena Carson, 33, an organizer with the Justice for Laquan Coalition, hailed the verdict as a “landmark moment” and said the Justice for Laquan Coalition would shift its focus to policy change, pushing to establish a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) for civilian oversight of the police.
“I just had a feeling of being heard,” Carson said, referring to the verdict. She has been advocating for justice in this case for four years. “The city is finally waking up. It feels like all the moments we were marching in the streets, all the work, all the organizing toward getting justice, it was worth it.”
While organizers were pleasantly surprised by the guilty verdict, many businesses and schools in Chicago and surrounding suburbs braced for an acquittal and possible riots. The CPD also deployed more than 4,000 officers to various neighborhoods, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
These advisories were criticized as fearmongering tactics by Black Chicagoans, including WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore. “Just as the jury determined that Van Dyke’s fear of McDonald was unreasonable, perhaps the same was true of those who feared catastrophic black rage in response to an acquittal,” Moore wrote in a WBEZ blog post.
Moore also critiqued the language Herbert, Van Dyke’s attorney, used during closing arguments, since he referred to McDonald as a “monster” and his client as “victim.” Throughout the trial, Herbert argued that his client acted in self-defense. When Van Dyke took the stand he maintained his innocence. Jurors later said he should not have taken the stand, according to CBS Chicago.
In a post-verdict press conference, Herbert said that his client did not receive a fair trial.
“We don’t believe that the evidence supported the conviction, but at the end of the day with the Cook County jury and with the pressure that we had in this case, we started this case 50 yards behind the starting line,” he said.
Later, Herbert told WGN Radio that he plans to file motions to dismiss the verdict based on “lack of evidence,” and also plans to appeal the verdict to a higher court. The next hearing in the case is Oct. 31. Sentencing is expected later this year.
Herbert added that his appeal will be based in part on the fact that the trial was held in Cook County. Herbert initially filed a change of venue motion prior to the trial, but Judge Vincent Gaughan denied this request, stating that all protests had been peaceful. Citizens have the right to peaceful assembly, Gaughan added.
At City Hall after the verdict, hundreds of citizens exercised this right while calling for widespread police reform.
“I hope this is the first step, an important step in dismantling the unjust criminal justice system,” said Tanya Watkins, the executive director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL). “I hope that people know that when we fight we win, so they should never stop fighting for justice.”
Calloway, who played a critical role from the beginning of the case, agreed.
“Today, Black Chicago won,” Calloway said. “I think you can never have healing or reconciliation without accountability.”