As Van Dyke is freed from prison, keep focus on police reform

The pace of reform has been glacial. If you ask residents of communities who felt most affected by McDonald’s shooting — in particular, the Black community — how much would they say things have changed since the night he was shot?

SHARE As Van Dyke is freed from prison, keep focus on police reform

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a press conference at City Hall in the Loop on March 3, where she and Police Supt. David Brown announced reforms in how search warrants are approved, planned, carried out and reviewed.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As Jason Van Dyke is scheduled to walk free Thursday after serving time for the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald, it is a reminder Chicago must get police reform into high gear.

Van Dyke is leaving prison after more than three years for second-degree murder, which — at less than half his official sentence of six years and nine months — is clearly not enough time behind bars for shooting McDonald 16 times.

This editorial board said as much when Van Dyke was sentenced in 2019, and it bears repeating.

In response to Van Dyke’s impending release, the NAACP on Tuesday urged U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to bring federal civil rights charges against him. Community activists also want to see federal charges based on a federal investigation that has been underway for more than six years.

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As much as we dislike Van Dyke’s short sentence, the Justice Department must be cautious in approaching the broader issue: charging an individual a second time because the original sentence doesn’t feel sufficient. It is an option that is ripe for abuse.

The main goal now is for Chicago to kick police reform into high gear. That outcome is the only way to make something positive out of the McDonald tragedy.

Right now, we sense none of the urgency needed to create the conditions for long-lasting reform. Chicago needs a sustained, strong message from the top — and from every level — about what is going to be done to bring real change.


Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke, left, attends his sentencing hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, for the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald on Jan. 18, 2019.

AP Photos

After the shocking videotape of McDonald’s shooting was released, voices resounded from every corner of the city on the need for reform. Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel assembled a Police Accountability Task Force, chaired by Lori Lightfoot, who now is mayor, to study police reform. Other groups weighed in with recommendations. Ultimately, the Department of Justice issued a damning report on CPD, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan shepherded through a reform consent decree.

But the pace of reform has been glacial. If you ask residents of communities who felt most affected by McDonald’s shooting — in particular, the Black community — how much would they say things have changed since the night he was shot?

Meanwhile, reassigning more than 300 police officers, as the city is now doing, seems like more shuffling of the deck chairs. That’s not part of reform. Nor will it help boost morale among a depleted department that, we think, includes many officers who would be willing to embrace a new way if given a strong mandate and enough backing.

Yes, COVID-19 landed on the plate of the city administration in 2020, requiring much of the city’s attention. But other urgent issues will always come up. Without a sustained drive for reform, Chicago will never get there. Those working to bring about reform will give up because they don’t believe it is ever going to happen, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In August, the former civilian commanding officer of the police department’s audit division said in a resignation letter that the police department brass did not “even feign interest in pursuing reform in a meaningful manner.”

On Monday, Lightfoot defended the Chicago Police Department’s reform efforts. In July, the City Council approved the city’s first civilian-led police oversight panel, and on Monday, Lightfoot appointed Adam Gross, an attorney and longtime police reform advocate, as its executive director.

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That’s a positive step. But the city also tends to claim too much credit for steps that are incremental, putting out press releases boasting of now missing fewer consent decree deadlines than in the past. Chicago will never achieve substantive reform at that rate.

Police officers have talked about the wide disparity between the instruction they receive in training and the messages they receive from colleagues, once they are on the street, that don’t comport with reform. If police are to invest personally in reform, they must believe those at the top are not going to let the effort fade away. They need to know that the way they get promoted and prosper in their careers is to wholeheartedly endorse reform.

The Justice Department can bring new charges against Van Dyke without violating double jeopardy, as long as it has additional elements to the case besides the evidence used against him in Cook County Circuit Court. But it is not clear whether the feds will choose to proceed. Some legal observers say it’s unlikely the federal government will act and that the outcome of another trial would be uncertain.  

Now, the most important step is to ensure that reform becomes more than a far-off goal, for the benefit of both police and residents. 

A new trial for Van Dyke is not enough.

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