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What happens when police officers are convicted of murder?

Laquan McDonald
Posted at 4:28 PM, Mar 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-25 16:28:06-04

CHICAGO, Ill. — Over the last 15 years, only a handful of police officers have been tried and convicted of murder for causing a death while they were on-duty.

The trial of Derek Chauvin could change the course of policing in Minneapolis. In Chicago, the high-profile murder trial of former police officer Jason Van Dyke left an indelible mark on the city, its leadership and reform efforts.

It took a year of public pressure and a court order for city officials to release the dashcam video of officer Van Dyke’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

“We had our George Floyd moment in Chicago back in 2014 with the killing of Laquan McDonald and then in 2015 when it all blew open,” said Jamie Kalven, executive director of the Invisible Institute

Kalven, an investigative journalist, is credited with breaking the story. It led to the first ever murder trial of a Chicago police officer in the city’s history.

“It's hard to overstate the symbolic importance of that occasion that he was charged. The trial went forward and ultimately that he was convicted of second-degree murder,” said Kalven.

The fallout included the firing of the city’s top cop and a failed re-election bid for the state’s attorney.

On the eve of jury selection for the Van Dyke trial, there was a stunning political reversal. With millions already raised for his re-election campaign, embattled Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would not seek a third term.

“This has been the job of a lifetime,” said Emanuel. “But it is not a job for a lifetime.”

Kalven said the political impact of the trial was extraordinary and called it an "earthquake in Chicago politics."

“It's the lack of transparency particularly in the Laquan McDonald case that became the real political problem,” said Sharon Fairley, a former federal prosecutor and University of Chicago law school professor.

Fairley says transparency did improve, but a Department of Justice consent decree requiring court monitoring of reforms and new systems of accountability have had spotty results.

“That's like turning a battleship. Those changes don't happen overnight,” said Fairley. “The first few years, to be honest with you, have been kind of rough. The city has been found to not really be following the timelines that it's supposed to be held to.”

Still, years later, Fairley says the push for police accountability in the wake of the killing of George Floyd has amplified the calls for justice.

“People are having conversations about police reform to a level of depth that they've never had before,” she said.

And though not discounting the symbolic importance of the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis, Kalven says justice in that city or in any other community will not come from a singular murder conviction.

“It is not in itself the kind of system of accountability that would actually change the day-to-day realities of abusive unconstitutional policing,” said Kalven.

And he says there must be a reasonable expectation of what results a trial like this can actually produce, a lesson learned in Chicago.

“What's paradoxical is it didn't change anything in terms of reform,” said Kalven. “I would venture to say it didn't make it any less likely that another African-American teenager would be shot and killed under similar circumstances.”