By Suzannah Gonzales
CHICAGO (Reuters) – After white former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced last month for the 2014 killing of black teen Laquan McDonald, top local officials urged the third-largest U.S. city to pull together to close a painful chapter in its history.
But the nearly seven-year prison sentence has accentuated the divisions and mistrust that have gripped Chicago since a video showing the shooting of the 17-year-old who carried a knife was made public in 2015, prompting days of protests, community activists and police said.
Activists who had praised Van Dyke’s second-degree murder conviction, a rare verdict for an American law enforcement officer, found the sentence far too lenient for a policeman who prosecutors said shot McDonald 16 times. On Monday, the newly sworn-in Illinois attorney general and special prosecutor in the case asked the state’s Supreme Court to review it.
The head of Chicago’s police union told Reuters that officers had grown more cautious since Van Dyke’s prosecution. They wait to be called to a scene rather than responding proactively, and stop fewer suspects on the street, said Kevin Graham, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago Lodge 7.
“It’s a very sad situation that we’re in today.” Graham said in an interview at union headquarters.
However, activists said that policing in communities of color remained aggressive, militarized and without trust. Candidates in this month’s mayoral election have prioritized policing in their campaigns, an issue that has extended to national politics.
“There’s just this great divide and overwhelming imbalance. It’s oppressive,” said Arewa Winters, a Chicago activist whose 16-year-old nephew, Pierre Loury, was fatally shot by police in 2016.
“I hope there is eventually a meeting of the hearts and the minds when it comes to police and the community,” Winters said. “We need each other.”
Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million people, is a racially divided city long scarred by allegations of police abuse.
CALL FOR UNITY
Van Dyke was beaten by inmates in his cell after being transferred this month from an Illinois state prison to the federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut, his legal team and relatives said on Thursday. He suffered bruising and injuries to his face and head.
His family and attorneys told a news conference they did not learn of his transfer to a federal facility until after it had happened, and did not know why the move took place. They said the attack was racially motivated, was connected with his case, and that they were concerned for his safety.
An Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman declined to give details of Van Dyke’s move, citing security concerns.
Shortly after Van Dyke’s sentencing, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson called on residents in a joint statement “to work together, listen to each other, and repair relationships that will make Chicago safer and stronger for generations to come.”
Emanuel, who faced calls to resign after the video of the shooting was released, and is not seeking a third term, pushed through police department reforms, including an agreement for outside monitoring of so-called stop-and-frisk searches. Emanuel fired former police superintendent and mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy after the video was released.
The American Civil Liberties Union said in 2015 that Chicago police stopped a disproportionate number of black people and relied on the practice more heavily than in other cities.
President Donald Trump has criticized the reforms and monitoring and warned of a “crime spree” in Chicago, historically one of the most violent cities in the United States but one that saw its murder rate fall in 2017 and 2018.
Police say the increased paperwork and a sense that the city is against police are complicating recruitment and causing more officers to leave the force. In 2018, 282 police officers retired, after 488 retirements in 2017, whereas the number was under 100 in previous years, the local police union said.
“There’s a war on police in this city,” said Martin Preib, second vice president of the union. “A lot of guys I think are ‘get me the hell out of there.'”
The Van Dyke sentence was closely watched in other U.S. cities that have experienced tensions between police and African-Americans. St. Louis saw large protests over the 2017 acquittal of white former city policeman Jason Stockley in the 2011 shooting death of a black man, Anthony Lamar Smith.
Still, St. Louis activist Elizabeth Vega said she was disappointed with Van Dyke’s sentence. “Black and brown lives are not given the same value as a police officer,” she said. “There’s a hierarchy there.”
(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Stauffer, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)