Milam’s Musings, milambc@miamioh.edu

Policing in America doesn’t have a “bad apple” problem, but rather a rotten apple tree problem.

No case better represents that than the Laquan McDonald shooting in Chicago on Oct. 2014, which only recently came to light.

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged Nov. 24, 2015 with first-degree murder for shooting McDonald 16 times within 15 seconds.

McDonald reportedly had PCP in his system and used a knife with a 4-inch blade to slash the tires of a squad car when he encountered officers, and then he walked away. Van Dyke was on the scene for 30 seconds when he opened fire, emptying his clip. In the released dashcam video, bullets can be seen going into McDonald’s prone body when he’s on the ground.

Without the video and with only the officer’s assertion that McDonald had lunged at him with the knife, the shooting narrative was self-defense. Even more perverse, the official story said McDonald only suffered a single gunshot wound to the chest.

This is not uncommon. The Independent Police Review Authority in Chicago has found only one police shooting in the last five years to be unjustified. Or put another way, that’s almost 400 shootings considered justified.

In April of this year, the Chicago City Council approved a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s relatives, but who pays for that? Not Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police. Not Van Dyke. Chicago taxpayers pay the please-go-away-and-shut-up-about-this money.

That’s quite the perverse system to deter wrongdoing.

In a conference call with the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel echoed the inane sentiments behind “one bad apple.”

“One individual needs to be held accountable. They need to be held accountable for what they’ve done,” Emanuel said.

But what about the other five police officers also on the scene with Van Dyke that knew McDonald didn’t lunge and that it wasn’t one gunshot? What about the higher-ups in the department that surely saw the dashcam video? What about Emanuel himself? What about the individuals that reportedly deleted a Burger King surveillance video of the shooting?

The question remains: with the existence of that abhorrent dashcam video, why did it take 13 months to charge Van Dyke?

Within two weeks of Sam DuBose being shot, officer Raymond Tensing was charged with murder and the body camera video was released. In Chicago, it took a city whistleblower, two freelance journalists, a Freedom of Information Act request, and a court order to arrive at a semblance of justice.

As the Chicago Tribune pointed out in a searing editorial board piece, there’s also inexplicably no audio in the dashcam video. Four more dashcam videos released also had no audio.

At every level of this incident, from the officers on the scene all the way to Mayor Emanuel, nobody seemed interested in getting to the truth of the matter.

Van Dyke had 15 complaints against him and the city already shelled out $500,000 to settle one such complaint.

Complaints involved hurling racial epithets to manhandling suspects and pointing his gun at an arrestee without justification. None of those resulted in any disciplinary action against Van Dyke.

Why does an officer like that remain on the police force with a gun?

Unfortunately, there has to be a side conversation about McDonald, as there always is in these police killings.

McDonald at the time of his death was a ward of the state. On that night, he was allegedly trying to break into vehicles in a trucking yard.

If you’re looking for the perfect victim, you’re doing it wrong.

Why, when an officer with a history of complaints, having been charged with first-degree murder for shooting someone 16 times and then the city of Chicago having tried to cover it up, is the onus on what McDonald was doing?

Why is his bullet-riddled body on trial instead of all the aforementioned? According to a Chicago Sun-Times report, McDonald was allegedly sexually molested in two different foster homes, which was after being removed twice from his mother’s care over abuse allegations from her boyfriend.

But his actions on that night erase any prior context of his life and make him less worthy of justice since he wasn’t a perfect victim.

Walter Scott ran away; Sam Dubose had a broken taillight and tried to drive away; John Crawford had a Walmart gun inside a Walmart within an open-carry state; Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old kid, played with a toy gun; Eric Garner sold loose cigarettes and resisted arrest; none of these ought to be death sentences, nor extinguish our empathy and need for justice.

There are mechanisms in place to protect rogue cops until they finally do something too outlandish to ignore, even though Chicago tried its damndest to ignore this one for as long as they could.

Unfortunately, the narratives that swirl around police violence make it harder to solve that problem.

Narratives like that of the bad apple or that of the perfect victim. That of, “What about black-on-black crime?” That of, “Whites are shot more by the police.” That of, “Black Lives Matter didn’t care about 6-year-old Jeremy David Mardis’ death in Louisiana by two black police officers.”

Here’s a quick rundown of why these narratives are ridiculous:

  • Blacks tend to live with other blacks and whites tend to live with other whites; ergo, the perpetrator and the victim in homicide cases tend to be of the same race.
  • Of course more white people are killed by the police because there are far more white people in the United States than there are black people. The point has always been the disproportionality, i.e., as a rate of their population, black people are disproportionately killed by the police and specifically in instances where the victim was unarmed.
  • Police killings of black people make up a small number compared to the likelihood of a black person being killed by another black person, but I offer two important points: 1.) At the height of lynchings in the United States, a black person was still more likely to be killed by a fellow black person, but does this change the abhorrence of lynchings? 2.) State-sanctioned killing is different than regular homicide, especially when there are clearly mechanisms in place to protect that state-sanctioned killing.
  • Black Lives Matter individuals, like DeRay McKesson used their influential reach on social media to talk about the Mardis killing. But there’s one important difference in his case, which explains why there weren’t protests over his death by BLM: the officers involved were charged almost instantly. Swift justice has not been the case of Rice, for example.

But remove race from the McDonald shooting. Conservative types and others still don’t appear to have an interest in addressing the abundant systemic failures that a.) allowed Van Dyke to remain as a police officer and b.) covered up a 17-year-old being shot 16 times.

It’s not just that too many people want to overlook the race component, but that too many people also want to overlook the structures in place that protect bad cops.

Just like Mayor Emanuel, they’re all too quick to want to pass this off as an isolated incident.

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