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Horror and Hope in the Murder of Laquan McDonald

Platitudes of the need to come together to heal and rebuild trust have zero impact on the national conspiracy of silence around police misconduct from top to bottom--police chiefs, police unions, prosecutors, other officers at the scene.
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Barbaric atrocity is on full display in the video of Laquan McDonald's killing by a Chicago police officer last October. Much more difficult to detect is the hope that a slaying so horrific has great potential to galvanize fundamental change in police accountability regarding excessive force whereas throughout our history, everywhere in America, we have had virtually none at all. The fundamental, structural changes I will discuss have already been mandated in New York City, with other cities moving in similar directions. For NYC, the promising and bold changes became possible only because of the public outrage generated by the staggering video of Eric Garner being choked to death by Staten Island police. We need Laquan McDonald to be Chicago's Eric Garner.

When the history books are written chronicling the shift from police impunity to accountability, July through November of 2014 will be designated as the critical turning point. First, Eric Garner's July choking death. Then in August, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, NJ. Although there was no video of the policeman shooting him, the ensuing prolonged and violent protests called attention to the Garner video, which previously had received negligible public scrutiny, and to the heartbreaking video in November, of 12 year-old Tamir Rice's shooting by a Cleveland policeman.

The tragic confluence of police killings of three unarmed black males from July through November placed America on high alert for other horrifying videos of police brutality. Like cockroaches emerging from the shadows, each video has signaled the infestation of many more to come.

We now know there was a savage fourth killing in October, 2014 -- sandwiched between the Brown and Rice killings -- when 17 year-old Laquan McDonald was murdered by a Chicago police officer who riddled the boy with 16 bullets, 14 fired after he was shot to the ground and motionless. The seven other officers at the scene said nothing, adhering to police omerta.

A long-suppressed police dashcam video exposes the barefaced lies in the police report that the boy "lunged" at the officer who"feared for his safety" (the standard box that is always checked whenever a policeman kills someone to make all investigations go away). The policeman then "shot the boy in the chest," implying a single shot. The report notably lied that Laquan was only pronounced dead an hour later in the hospital.

Journalist Brandon Smith prevailed in a civil lawsuit to release the video where fourteen previous attempts had been beaten back by the city. Had Judge Frank Valderrama not ordered the release, it would likely have been suppressed for years to come. The video by law should have been made quickly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act

Officer Jason Van Dyke, who killed the boy, was charged with 1st degree murder a scant two hours before the video was forcibly released. He had been re-assigned to a desk job with full pay for the previous fourteen months. The suppression of the video was attributed to the necessity for completing ongoing investigations, an allegation that factually, is simply not true.

Accusations abound regarding the motivation, political and otherwise, for suppressing the video. But the problem runs much, much deeper than one mayor, in one city, in one election. Police brutality in America without consequence is as timeless as it is ubiquitous. Police have virtually never been indicted for excessive force anywhere in our country with very, very few exceptions that usually have amounted to a light slap on the wrist.

Since last November, that has changed. In three separate killings, indictments and murder charges have been swift and decisive against a university police officer in Cincinnati, six officers in Baltimore, and a startlingly psychopathic Charleston policeman. Why? In all three cases there were blatantly incriminating videos. Prior to 2014, such consequences were unheard of.

Although this a national problem, Chicago has a particularly odious history of police brutality, very likely the worst in the America, with 75% of the victims being black. Recall Mayor Daley ordering that police "shoot to kill" violent protesters following the 1968 Martin Luther King assassination. Recall the systematic torturing of suspects in police custody in the '70s and '80s. Chicago spent approximately $500 million from 2004--2014 to settle police misconduct claims, otherwise known as hush money. From 2010--2014, there were 240 police shootings (one per week), resulting in over 70 fatalities (more than one each month), by far the highest in America, with LA at 47 and NYC at 41. Not one officer has been indicted. Until Van Dyke, not one.

Platitudes of the need to come together to heal and rebuild trust have zero impact on the national conspiracy of silence around police misconduct from top to bottom--police chiefs, police unions, prosecutors, other officers at the scene.

Okay, so where is the hope? For Chicago, the Laquan video may be the critical "hitting bottom," as the Eric Garner video was for NYC. Better background checks and training, more Tasers, body cams and police are woefully insufficient. Two laws that will structurally change everything and steadily demolish the conspiracy of silence, have recently been mandated in New York City. First, in a state wide executive order, Governor Andrew Cuomo insisted that an independent special prosecutor replace the embedded prosecutor who works hand-in-hand with the very officers being investigated. Second, the NYPD has issued new mandatory guidelines of serious consequences for any officer who sees another officer use excessive force and does not report it. Mayor de Blasio and Police Chief Bratton, following the Garner video, had the fortitude, persistence, and popular support to stand up to the NYPD union. Similar steps are being enacted in Los Angeles, Seattle, Wisconsin and elsewhere to break the blue code of silence.

The news just hit that Police Chief McCarthy has been fired by Emanuel, citing the need for "fresh eyes and new leadership." No argument there.

The worm has indeed turned. History is watching and history books await their writing. The pathway has already been blazed. We must insist that Chicago follow it.