On Jason Van Dyke case, why is U.S. attorney’s office silent on civil rights charges?

The ex-Chicago cop’s early release from prison after his murder conviction for killing Laquan McDonald puts the spotlight on federal prosecutors over calls for such charges.

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Protesters rallied Thursday outside the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in downtown Chicago, demanding that newly released Jason Van Dyke face federal civil rights charges for killing Laquan McDonald.

Protesters rallied Thursday outside the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in downtown Chicago, demanding that newly released Jason Van Dyke face federal civil rights charges for killing Laquan McDonald.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Jason Van Dyke’s early release from prison reopens a wound that hasn’t had time to heal.

A jury convicted the former Chicago police officer of murder for killing Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, shooting him 16 times in 2014.

To start, the 81-month sentence that Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan handed Van Dyke, a white man, was woefully inadequate and should have been challenged by the U.S. attorney’s office at that time.

Now, to see Van Dyke go free after serving a little over three years behind bars only adds insult to that injury.

The wound caused by Van Dyke’s act of police terrorism is as gaping as it was the day he was locked up.

Though his sentence was shockingly light, many policing critics accepted that the conviction was still a victory and a step toward police reform.

After all, this was the first time in a half-century that an on-duty Chicago police officer had been convicted of murder.

Van Dyke likely would not have been charged at all if activists had not taken to the streets, demanding that City Hall release a damning video that captured the shooting.

On Thursday, the day of Van Dyke’s release, politicians bemoaned the inequities in the criminal justice system.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called Van Dyke’s early release a “gross miscarriage of justice” — particularly strong words for someone who was an early supporter of criminal justice reform.

And Mayor Lori Lightfoot said,“It’s these distortions in the criminal justice system, historically, that has made it so hard to build trust.”

But the mayor tried to cast a positive light on an issue that still divides the city into two camps: those who support policing reforms and those who believe those reforms hamstring police.

“This prosecution led to historic reforms, including comprehensive legislation that created the first-ever community police oversight body in Chicago and a consent decree to oversee CPD reform,” she said.

Van Dyke’s early release, a result of being credited with “good time,” might not be special treatment.

But a jury convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet that struck McDonald’s body. For Van Dyke to go free after serving a mere three years looks like special treatment.

His getting out of prison early also raises concerns about the message that sends to communities of color that bear the brunt of overly aggressive policing.

Van Dyke’s release and his light sentence only feed the perception that the criminal justice system in Illinois still favors abusive police officers.

People who feel police officers are justified in shooting crime suspects who don’t obey their commands are likely to embrace Van Dyke as a hero and welcome his return to freedom.

That won’t help the ongoing efforts to reform police practices that have resulted in the city of Chicago having had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for police brutality and wrongful-death cases.

William Calloway, who led the public campaign that called for Van Dyke to be prosecuted for McDonald’s death, has called on the Justice Department to file civil rights charges against the former officer.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, and the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church, also have embraced this cause.

Some people are criticizing activists for just now agitating for the U.S. attorney’s office to charge Van Dyke with violating McDonald’s civil rights. But it’s the U.S. attorney’s office that has some explaining to do.

If federal prosecutors investigated this notorious shooting in 2014 and decided not to charge Van Dyke with civil rights violations, shouldn’t the public know why that decision was made?

While it seems unlikely the feds will file civil rights charges at this late date, unjustifiable police shootings are such an explosive issue that the U.S. attorney’s office can’t remain silent.

Van Dyke’s conviction might have been historic. But his punishment and early release have become symbolic.

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