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Chicago needs a plan for handling Laquan McDonald verdict

Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke, second from left, attends a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. |Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)

Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke, second from left, attends a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. |Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)

What if Jason Van Dyke is found “not guilty?”   

It’s not fair, but many people have already judged the police officer as he awaits his trial for the murder of Laquan McDonald.

Just look at the dash-cam videotape, they’ll say, of McDonald, 17, stumbling away as he is shot dead, 16 times. Remember the $5 million legal settlement the city paid his family?

“I think there’s a very strong chance that he’s going to be acquitted,” mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot told me last week.


Lightfoot said she doesn’t want to prejudge the evidence in the trial, which begins Sept. 5. But she is “very worried” about “the way in which this case is being litigated in secret,” said the federal prosecutor, former president of the Chicago Police Board and leader of the police reform task force.

“The fact that there’s a 90 percent-plus certainty [Van Dyke] is going to take a bench trial,” she said.

And, she notes, few police officers have been convicted of murder in Cook County and nationwide.

Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan has enforced tight control on the preliminary hearings, she noted. He’s been so secretive that media organizations appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which recently ordered him to relax some restrictions.

Lightfoot said there is a “heightened burden of proof” in such cases. “I can’t really remember what I regard as a high-profile case where an officer is accused of committing a homicide where’s there’s been a conviction.”

Add the decades of police abuse and mistrust in Chicago’s communities of color. It could be an explosive mixture in a hot trial.

While she hopes for the best, Lightfoot is calling on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to create “a plan for peace.”

He should convene police officials, community and civic leaders, legal experts and other key players to “make sure that people are channeling their emotions in a productive expression that doesn’t become destructive.”

She proposes strategies like posting a camera in the courtroom to track the trial in real-time; asking legal experts to provide daily updates; and deploying ministers, activists and other community leaders to help keep the peace.

She also worries about the police response. “We don’t need a NATO-like, militarized presence in our streets if people are just engaged in peaceful protest.”

Lightfoot said she has been talking to leaders across the city for months, but they have heard nothing from City Hall.

“This is a seminal moment for leadership. And Rahm Emanuel has to step up and show us that’s he’s not going to be afraid, that he’s not going to be silent, as he typically is. That he’s going to step up and lead and really call upon people across the city, not just through his words but also through actions, to put together a real plan for peace.”

It’s no surprise that Lightfoot, an Emanuel appointee-turned-mayoral challenger, has harsh words for his leadership.

“Just because she’s not a part of community conversations doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. They are, and they have been for some time,” Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins responded in an email.

“Away from cameras and the glow of TV lights, the mayor, the superintendent and city leaders have had countless community conversations in an effort to bring people together, hear each other and build understanding. Those conversations will of course continue in the weeks and months ahead, not only around the trial, but long after it is over.”

I asked him whether Emanuel has a “plan for peace.”

“Honestly, that comment assumes the decision of a jury and it assumes how the public will react, unfairly I think,” he replied.

“In difficult moments, like when the [Laquan McDonald] tape was released, we’ve shown that people can make their voices heard safely.”

Will there be a “not guilty” verdict? Should there be a plan?

Pivotal questions for Chicago.

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