Activists plan downtown rally Feb. 3 to protest release of Jason Van Dyke

Rev. Jesse Jackson is lobbying the Justice Department to file civil rights charges against Van Dyke for the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald.

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Laquan McDonald’s grandmother, Tracey Hunter, speaks about her grandson’s death during a news conference Monday with Rev. Jesse Jackson and others at Rainbow PUSH Coalition offices at 930 E. 50th St. in Kenwood,

Laquan McDonald’s grandmother, Tracey Hunter, speaks about her grandson’s death during a news conference Monday with Rev. Jesse Jackson and others at Rainbow PUSH Coalition offices at 930 E. 50th St. in Kenwood.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

On the day three Minnesota police officers went to trial on federal civil rights charges in the murder of George Floyd, a coalition of Chicago activists called for the Justice Department to bring a case against Jason Van Dyke for the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald.

Van Dyke is set to be released from prison Feb. 3 after serving under half of an 81-month sentence for the murder of the 17-year-old McDonald in an on-duty shooting on the city’s Southwest Side, a day that Rev. Jesse Jackson and a roster of other Black leaders pledged to hold a mass demonstration in the Loop.

“The crime and the time do not correspond,” Jackson said Monday at a news conference at Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters, during which he compared Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times to the murder of Emmett Till, and, more pointedly, the killing of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin in Minnesota.

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“The federal dimensions (of the Floyd and McDonald killings) are the same. (Van Dyke) violated his civil rights.”

Chauvin was convicted on state-level charges of murder in Floyd’s death, and began a 22-year prison sentence last month. Chauvin and three other officers who were present as Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck also were charged with federal civil rights offenses.

Joined by McDonald’s grandmother and aunt, as well as representatives of more than 20 activist groups, Jackson called on members of Amalgamated Transit Workers locals 241 and 308 to strike Feb. 3 to “shut down the city” to protest Van Dyke’s release. The two unions represent the bulk of rank-and-file workers in the Chicago Transit Authority. Union officials did not immediately respond to calls from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Jackson said the groups will rally at Federal Plaza in the Loop, across from the Dirksen Federal Building, at 5 p.m. on Feb. 3.

By his release date, Van Dyke will have served just over three years and three months of the 81-month sentence handed down after his 2018 conviction for second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet he fired at the 17-year-old McDonald.

Van Dyke, 43, dropped appeals of his conviction a year into his sentence because, his lawyer said, he wanted to serve out his time and avoid further attention. Van Dyke, who was beaten by inmates at a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., early in his sentence, has spent much of his time behind bars since in solitary confinement and has been repeatedly transferred among prisons.

Federal investigators in 2015 announced a “joint” investigation was ongoing shortly after video of the McDonald shooting was released by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who made the recording public after a year-long public records battle. That probe apparently began in 2014, not long after the shooting. Former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced murder charges against Van Dyke the day the video was released.

In a 2016 speech to the City Club, then-U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon said his office typically would wait for a state-level prosecution to run its course before adding federal charges.

“When the state decides to charge an officer, my office often will wait rather than risk jamming up the state’s prosecution,” Fardon said then.

“When we make that decision to wait, we monitor the state case to see how it is resolved, and once the state case is done, we make a decision whether or not to charge federally. In making that decision, the key factor is whether we the think the state result, including any prison sentence, has rendered justice.”

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney John Lausch declined comment. Jackson said he intended to lobby both U.S. senators from Illinois to press the DOJ for charges. There is no statute of limitations to prosecute federal civil rights violations that involve a fatality.

Chauvin and fellow officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao were charged federally in May 2021, a year after Floyd’s death and three months after Merrick Garland took over as attorney general. Chauvin pleaded guilty to the federal charges after his sentencing on the state counts, and the trial of three fellow former Minneapolis police officers opened Monday at a federal courthouse in St. Paul, Minn.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division did launch an investigation of the Chicago Police Department in the months after the release of the McDonald tape, and the finding in a report issued by the DOJ a year later was used as the basis for a lawsuit that landed the department under a federal consent decree.

Federal charges against police officers are rare, a study by the Transactional Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found. Federal statutes allow police and other law enforcement officers to be prosecuted when they abuse their positions to deprive citizens of their civil rights “under color of law,” but when federal or local officials refer cases to federal prosecutors for prosecution, they are seldom charged.

The Syracuse study found that federal prosecutors declined to prosecute nine out of 10 “color of law” cases, one of the lowest rates of any category of federal offense. In 2019, only 49 of the more than 184,000 cases charged by U.S. Attorneys across the U.S. were for violations of color of law statutes.

But federal prosecutions do sometimes follow state-level cases, as when the Los Angeles police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King were acquitted on state charges in 1991, but subsequently were charged and convicted on federal civil rights counts.

Contributing: Jon Seidel

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