A police officer who kills without sufficient cause should be held accountable, so there is reason to feel some satisfaction and relief that a jury on Friday found Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke guilty of murder and aggravated battery in the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.
Satisfaction, because it had long seemed that the deck in this case was stacked against justice. Chicago Police Department reports said McDonald swung a knife at officers; they called the shooting justified. Video of the incident was withheld for more than year. When it was finally released — as a result of a journalist’s lawsuit — the public was able to see images that differed sharply from the police account.
And why relief? In part because after repeated high-profile police killings of young black men (many unarmed) that shocked the public conscience but were officially deemed justified or ended in acquittals, it became necessary to question whether any of our institutions of justice were up to the challenge of ensuring fairness and safety without regard to race — and indeed whether they ever ever would be.
The task is to find a way to prevent shootings, and not merely to punish them.
There is cause for satisfaction and relief — but no glee. It may be the case that Van Dyke was, as some have alleged, part of a racist and murderous police culture that finally got its comeuppance. But it is at least equally likely that the Chicago Police Department, the politicians with influence over it and the institutions that oversee it created a system and culture of policing that gives guns to people who shouldn’t have them and provides insufficient training not just in handling life-threatening encounters, but in judgment and self-awareness about ingrained fears and racial attitudes. The 16 shots that Van Dyke fired could as easily be a mark of incompetence or poor training as malice toward McDonald.
Which it is makes little difference to the victim, or to other African American men shot dead by police. Nor should it make a difference in punishment of the officer. But if we are to prevent such killings in the future, it is essential to come to grips with screening, training and police tactics. It is intellectually lazy to argue that the problem with law enforcement in America is simply that we have too many racist cops who join police departments in order to mete out their visions of racial justice on the streets. There is scant evidence that police officers — today, at least — are any more racist than the rest of us. The difference is that they have guns, and official permission to use them.
Chicago has an especially notorious record of policing — unreasonable use of force against non-whites, an unwillingness to hold officers accountable for misconduct or mistakes, a dysfunctional disciplinary system and an attitude of defiance toward the public that officers are supposed to serve.
But the department is not unique. The same year McDonald was shot dead, LAPD officers killed Ezell Ford in Los Angeles. A Ferguson, Mo., officer killed Michael Brown Jr. A New York police officer on Staten Island killed Eric Garner. A Cleveland police officer killed Tamir Rice.
These names and the names of others in the years since have become well-known in part because of the prevalence of video and in part because of the work of activists, who will not allow the rest of us to brush aside the disproportionate police killing of African American men. But there are many more whose names are not widely known and whose killings are not captured on video. Some were armed, as was McDonald. Many are not.
Under Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department no longer examines police departments that demonstrate patterns of bias. In the absence of federal oversight, it is tempting to measure justice by tallying the rare prosecutions and even rarer guilty verdicts of police officers such as Van Dyke.
But just as we cannot solely arrest and prosecute our way out of crime — although arrests and prosecutions will play their part — we cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of police violence. The task is to find a way to prevent shootings, and not merely to punish them.