When the defense team for Jason Van Dyke, the former Chicago cop who last week became the first in decades to be convicted for a killing while on duty, painted young black male Laquan McDonald as a “monster” during the trial, they were defending not just Van Dyke but the practice of policing in America.
The jury’s guilty verdict was a rejection of the ways police have interacted with black communities — and a significant foothold in the fight for transformative justice in Chicago.
But that initial step pales in comparison with the wrongs that the Van Dyke case revealed. He was a cop who had a history of complaints, including racism — issues that didn’t start in Chicago with him.
The history of the Chicago Police Department reflects that of so many others in America, and makes it clear that law enforcement has been a driver of injustice. Over the past 50 years, major scandals have rocked the CPD that show the department has targeted and worked hard to control black and brown communities. The department killed Black Panther Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton. Late Chicago police Commander Jon Burge’s department was tied to the torture of black and brown people for decades with impunity. Both of these scandals occurred long before Van Dyke’s.
The instances we’ve heard about from CPD, the ones that get national attention, are only the tip of the iceberg. Chicago needs a public truth-telling project in the vein of truth and reconciliation commissions to document the intergenerational harm CPD has imposed on black and brown communities — and it must be led by the people most affected by police violence.
A History of Corruption, Violence
In the defense’s retelling of what happened between McDonald and Van Dyke, McDonald was no longer a teenager or even a person. Instead, he was a “whacked-out,” knife-wielding threat. The defense urged the jury to remember that McDonald didn’t appear to be a Boy Scout. Van Dyke called McDonald an aggressive threat with “huge white eyes” and a “dead soul.”
After the public release of the McDonald video in 2015, the Department of Justice announced a wide-ranging investigation of the Chicago Police Department focused on police accountability, use of force and racial disparities. The final report documented systemic racism and deficiencies in CPD operations including at least 51 instances of aggravated battery, 42 counts of reckless conduct and at least 24 counts of obstruction of justice.
The CPD uses force against young black men approximately 14 times more than against young white men, according to the Invisible Institute. It targets young black women with force 10 times more frequently than white women and two times more frequently than white men.
Even the most mundane department activities indicate racial bias — more than half of all bike tickets issued by CPD were in majority black neighborhoods. Only 18% were given in white neighborhoods.
That history of corruption and violence made the guilty verdict a historic moment in the Movement for Black Lives and one that was brought about by black youth’s relentless demands for accountability and justice.
After McDonald’s death, Chicago’s young black people shut down the streets, occupied city hall, and crafted powerful messages demanding justice and accountability and exposing CPD as racist and corrupt.
Alternative Justice Long Overdue
While DOJ documentation supports the call for change, it’s not enough to merely document the harm CPD has imposed upon Chicago. True healing requires changing police systems and policies. And that the proposed ordinance for a Civilian Police Accountability Council — an elected body of Chicago residents that would push to keep city police in check — becomes law.
This idea might sound radical, but the reality is that elected boards control part or all of many state functions — from education to the judiciary, from water reclamation to the county sheriff. Why shouldn’t a civilian board be permanently responsible for ensuring that law enforcement stop abusing city residents? Policing is not more specialized than education or water purification. Those who reject community control of the police are likely too invested in the police existing to control the community.
But it’s also not enough to ensure that bad cops are disciplined. Chicago must overhaul its entire public safety system from one that’s punitive to one that is proactive and stems from the desire to heal.
Chicago’s leaders must focus on investing in communities and diverting people away from the formal justice system. Strategies like restorative justice and community conferencing allow people in conflict to acknowledge and repair harm without the life-destroying consequences of a conviction. Interruptions like pre-arrest diversion allow officers to divert people in crisis — people like McDonald — to care providers as opposed to the county jail.
Racist police practices are historical, systemic and seemingly intractable. Where they exist — justice cannot.
The harm perpetuated by the CPD on Chicago’s black and brown communities has a depth and a width that could never be addressed through a single jury verdict.
Even so, the Van Dyke verdict demonstrates that through the work of black organizers, the seeds of transformative justice have been planted and could be belatedly ready to bloom.
Public truth-telling about the CPD, true community control of the police, and justice system diversion initiatives are long overdue.
This article was originally published in USA TODAY.