Officer who shot Laquan McDonald could be charged, but not lose job

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Black aldermen and others have called for the firing of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke — whose 2014 shooting of a knife-wielding suspect was captured on a graphic video — but the officer will remain on the job as a slow-moving disciplinary process plays out.

The Sun-Times’ Michael Sneed reported that Van Dyke will be charged Tuesday for shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times on Oct. 20, 2014. Under a court order, the city must release the video to the public by Wednesday. Police are bracing for the possibility of demonstrations.

But Van Dyke will stay on the job — although he was stripped of his police powers and has been placed on desk duty — because his due-process rights protect him from being unilaterally fired by police Supt. Garry McCarthy, whose boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, called the shooting “hideous” and “with no justification.”

McDonald, 17, was a ward of the state who had PCP in his bloodstream and was wielding a 4-inch knife when Van Dyke shot him. McDonald was black and the officer is white, raising the possibility of Ferguson, Missouri-like protests when the video is released.

Van Dyke’s attorney has said the video of the shooting is “graphic” and “difficult to watch,” but doesn’t prove his client violated the law.

Immediately after McDonald’s death, the Independent Police Review Authority began investigating. The city agency examines every police-involved shooting, but it put the case on hold while the U.S. attorney and Cook County state’s attorney conducted a joint investigation into whether the officer committed a crime.

If the state’s attorney files charges against Van Dyke, the Independent Police Review Authority will restart its investigation. And if the agency concludes he should be fired, it would make that recommendation to McCarthy, who would then decide whether to ask the Chicago Police Board to fire him.

Anthony Abbate, the Chicago cop whose beating of a female bartender was captured on a notorious video, was fired on the board’s recommendation in 2009 — more than two years after the 2007 attack and months after he was convicted of aggravated battery.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said what many people were thinking last week after a judge ordered the video released: “We need an explanation as to why Officer Jason Van Dyke, who killed Mr. McDonald, is still on the payroll of the city of Chicago and has not been charged with a crime.”

Sawyer softened his tone Monday. He acknowledged there is a “process that must be followed” before an accused officer can be fired, and said he needs to understand what that process is as outlined by the union contract.

“I know Supt. McCarthy can’t unilaterally fire someone. I need clarity on what it takes to terminate somebody,” Sawyer said.

Informed that the Independent Police Review Authority refers all police-involved shootings to the state’s attorney’s office and stands down until charges are filed or there’s a decision not to file charges, Sawyer said: “Then, the question is, why is the state’s attorney taking so long? Maybe our focus would then be on the state’s attorney.”

Lawyers with the state’s attorney’s office have been closely working with federal authorities on the investigation. There’s no particular reason their investigation has lasted more than a year without charges, except that federal authorities have been “methodical,” sources said.

Sources said the Independent Police Review Authority had gathered evidence and interviewed witnesses for about a week before sending the case to the state’s attorney’s office as it does after all police-involved shootings. Almost immediately, the FBI “expressed interest” in the case and has been leading a joint investigation into the shooting of McDonald.

What piqued the FBI’s interest?

“The details: the nature of the shooting itself, the way the shooting went down,” a source said. “It has to be the best possible case if you’re going to bring it. No expense has been spared.”

The decision to strip Van Dyke of his police powers but keep him on the job was also by the book.

“He can’t be taken off the payroll until the investigation is done. He has to be presented with allegations and questioned under oath. That process is not finished,” another source said.

“Even if the superintendent is totally disgusted with the officer’s actions, the process has got to be respected.”

At least 18 citizen complaints have been filed against the 37-year-old Van Dyke in his 14-year career, but he was never disciplined, according to a University of Chicago database. Eight complaints alleged excessive force, two involving the use of a firearm in addition to the McDonald shooting. The database didn’t provide details about the incidents.

In 2009, a federal jury awarded $350,000 in damages and $180,000 in attorney fees in a lawsuit alleging Van Dyke and his partner injured Edward Nance after a 2007 traffic stop at 87th and Martin Luther King Drive, court records show.

On Monday, Sawyer was asked whether the release of the McDonald video would prompt the Black Caucus to renew its demand for McCarthy’s ouster.

“We have no idea what we’re going to do. We’re going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about a variety of things — a plan of action in response to this video,” he said.

Another African-American alderman, who asked not to be named, was still holding out hope for “justice to be served” before the tape is released.

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