It was one of those moments when it seemed everything had changed — or would have to change, at last.
The video recording of an officer firing 16 bullets into a 17-year-old boy named Laquan McDonald placed Chicago at the center of the national debate over policing and race.
Thursday marks a year since city officials released the video. Sure enough, many significant things did happen after the video of the police shooting went viral:
- Authorities charged Jason Van Dyke — the officer who shot McDonald and continued to shoot him after he crumpled to the middle of Pulaski Road — with first-degree murder.
- The U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department.
- The tough-talking police superintendent who led the department at the time of the shooting in 2014 was forced out, replaced by the city’s first African-American top cop in 13 years.
- Voters unseated the prosecutor who had not immediately charged Van Dyke and elected a new Cook County state’s attorney who’s promising criminal-justice reform.
- Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aldermen dismantled the ineffective agency that investigated misconduct charges against officers and created the new Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
- As Emanuel’s public-approval ratings plummeted, he became a pariah among national Democrats who once saw him as a rising star, and he admitted that a “code of silence” exists in the Chicago Police Department.
- And just recently — amid a sharp spike this year in murders and other violent crime — the mayor promised to add nearly 1,000 officers to the depleted police force.
But how much really has changed?
Not nearly enough, say advocates for reforming policing in Chicago.
“Things have definitely changed in terms of the popular framing of the issue,” says Johnae Strong, an organizer with Black Youth Project 100, who was arrested at a protest after the video’s release.
She says police, however, continue “harassing, violating, assaulting and murdering people” with impunity.
“We have a long way to go,” says Strong, 26, who lives in the Bronzeville neighborhood. “I don’t believe real accountability has happened.”
Police officers now are much more aware of the possibility they could face criminal charges for their efforts to fight crime, says Daniel Herbert, the lawyer who’s representing Van Dyke.
Although he couldn’t comment specifically on the ongoing Van Dyke case, Herbert says being injured or killed in the line of duty is the only thing officers in Chicago now fear more than the specter of an indictment against them.
As a result, some police offices say they have gone into self-preservation mode. Herbert blames that new mentality for the rising crime numbers.
Since the video was released on Nov. 24, 2015, Chicago has seen 758 murders, according to records from the police department and the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
The last time there were so many murders in a calendar year was 1997.
“Pro-active policing is essentially dead,” Herbert says. “I think it very much correlates with the exploding homicide rate.”
“At the end of the day, there has to be law enforcement and order in the streets. Officers need to have the ability to do their jobs. What we have now is, if somebody makes a mistake, they will be indicted criminally.”
Police have fatally shot 10 people in Chicago since the release of the video. The most notorious of those cases was the first such incident, which came barely a month after the video’s release.
Officer Robert Rialmo shot and killed college student Quintonio LeGrier as he ran out of his dad’s house on the West Side on the morning after Christmas 2015. Rialmo also fatally shot Bettie Jones — a next-door neighbor and innocent bystander.
Although police quickly apologized for Jones’ death, Rialmo remains on the force and was even mistakenly allowed to go back out on the streets for a spell during the summer.
Standing in a blood-spattered doorway on the frigid day of the double shooting, the Rev. Marshall Hatch was incredulous that police apparently had not become less likely to shoot so freely in the wake of the McDonald video’s release.
In the past year, Hatch said this week, officers have essentially told the public in violence-plagued neighborhoods: “Either we get to do it our way or we won’t police.”
Since the video was released, the gulf between the department and communities with the highest crime rates has only widened, and less-aggressive policing has emboldened criminals, says Hatch, the pastor at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Garfield Park.
“It’s reasonable for us to expect the police to be aggressive and also operate with integrity — to do their jobs without breaking the law,” he says. “It’s just not too much to ask.”
At City Hall and at police headquarters, there no longer is any disputing that systemic change is necessary.
Ever eager to get ahead of the news, the Emanuel administration released a report Monday detailing the changes officials claim credit for in the past year.
“We’re committed to reform,” CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi says. “It’s something we’re going to do. We’ve done a lot, and we will do a lot more.
“We’re chipping away at the rock here. Change takes time. You want to make sure you do it right.”
Flint Taylor, a veteran civil-rights lawyer, says there remains “a tremendous amount of unfinished business.”
Chicago has seen many police scandals come and go over the decades. Summerdale. Fred Hampton. Jon Burge.
The release of the video of McDonald’s death, Taylor says, ranks right up there with the lowest moments in the department’s history.
“It was a very profound moment,” he says. “It exposed for all to see the racist police violence and the code of silence and cover-ups that have been endemic for the 50 years I’ve been involved in these issues.”
Still, Taylor views many of the changes of the past year with skepticism. He noted that the new police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, came from within the department ranks, meaning the department has not been led by a “true outside reformer” since O.W. Wilson was top cop in the 1960s.
Taylor also says the police union continues to enjoy contract protections that make it difficult to punish bad cops.
“They make no distinction in who they will defend,” Taylor says of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge representing Chicago officers. “That has not changed at all. The city has to show some real muscle in the next contract negotiations.”
The future of police reform, he says, will hinge greatly on whether a “powerful citizen review aspect to the disciplinary system” is allowed to emerge from the ruins of the ineffectual, old Independent Police Review Authority.
Hatch and Taylor said they have little confidence that the feds will pursue their investigation of the Chicago police with much enthusiasm after Donald Trump becomes president.
Taylor predicts that Trump’s new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, will dismantle the civil-right efforts of the Justice Department. He and officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said they hoped the federal civil-rights probe would lead to a consent decree between the feds and the police, as happened in many other cities during President Barack Obama’s administration.
Because Trump won, Hatch says, “We can’t depend on the Department of Justice. We have to deal with it ourselves. We owe it to ourselves to use the tragedy of the Laquan McDonald case to radically change and reform.”
It likely will be a lot more than one more year before it’s clear whether the shock of the video’s release will make a real and lasting difference.
Contributing: Sam Charles