Bring Police Shootings into the Light of Justice

By now I guess that just about everyone has seen the video of a police officer shooting to death a black teenager on the streets of Chicago. The video is very difficult to watch.  According to reports, 17 year old Laquan McDonald, was shot 16 times in 15 seconds.  You can see on the video that the first two shots knocked him to the pavement and then remaining 14 rounds were apparently pumped into his prone body.

If you have not yet seen the video, you can find it here on the Time website:  Video of Chicago Police Shooting Released  (Warning, it is very graphic.)

After watching the video several times I concluded that the police officer had no logical reason to shoot the kid though he was high on drugs and had a three inch knife in his hand. At the time the first shots were fired by Officer Jason Van Dyke, the police had Laquan surrounded and as he was waking past the police cruiser he veered away, obviously trying to avoid the police officers who had just exited the car and drawn their weapons.

I was watching CNN when a former police official, who the network usually calls in to comment about such situations, was asked about what he saw on the video. This gentleman has steadfastly defended the actions of the police in other situations of this type, but not this time. He said that he could in no way the defend the actions of the police officer depicted shooting in that video. He also expressed disbelief that it took so long to charge the officer who killed the teenager with murder. He pointed out that he had lead many investigations into police shootings and had routinely completed those investigations within three to four weeks.

This former police official had an excellent point. Almost as shocking as the video is the fact that it took over a year for the police officer who fired those shots to be charged with murder. According to the Time article: “Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez defended the 13 months it took to the charge Officer Van Dyke. She said cases involving police officers present “highly complex” legal issues and she would rather take the time to get it right than “rush to judgment.”

Yea, right! What’s really difficult is for a prosecutor to charge a police officer with a crime when she works hand and glove with that police department every day. We might also want to make note of the fact that the officer was not charged until a judge ruled that the video must be released. It is a valid question to ask whether Ms. Alvarez would have taken any action on the case if the video had remained buried and her had hand had not been forced. It is also fair to ask whether she will now prosecute the case with all due vigor.

In several recent high visibility cases of police officers shootings young black men, we have seen other police officers trying to cover up for the officers who did the shootings. Their lies were exposed only because there was video evidence to the contrary. We have also seen the reluctance of district and city attorneys to pursue criminal charges against the police even when there was ample evidence to do so. What are we to believe occurs when there is no video record of a tragic event?  So the most important question is – can we trust police departments to investigate their own and can we trust district attorneys to prosecute their buddies on the police force when warranted?

The answer is best rooted in the axiom, “perception is reality”. In police shooting situations we simply cannot afford even the possibility of an appearance of impropriety if we want to reestablish the trust of the public has been lost in their police forces. I believe that every death by police hands should be investigated by an agency with no ties to the police force in question. If the findings of those investigations warrant, special prosecutors with no ties to either the police departments or the local prosecutor’s offices should be appointed to handle the cases. This is the only solution which will ensure that these cases are handled in a just, open and above board manner.

Cajun     11/25/15

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