CHICAGO — The Chicago police officer who fatally shot black teenager Laquan McDonald has been charged with first-degree murder, a major turn that comes as many in the city braced for potential unrest.
The Cook County State’s Attorney announced Tuesday that the Chicago officer, Jason Van Dyke, turned himself in to authorities on Tuesday morning.
Until Tuesday, Van Dyke still worked for the police department in a “limited duty position” as investigators probed the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting death of McDonald.
Authorities say McDonald, 17, was armed with a 4-inch knife when Van Dyke, who is white, confronted him. The teen did not comply with “numerous police orders to drop the knife,” the officer’s lawyer, Daniel Herbert, told the Chicago Tribune, when Van Dyke opened fire. McDonald died after being shot 16 times.
“He’s scared to death, but more than himself he’s scared for his wife, his two kids,” Herbert said of his client, prior to charges being filed. “He knows in his heart of hearts that his actions were appropriate.”
Activists, however, have blasted Van Dyke for his actions. And they were joined last week by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“Police officers are entrusted to uphold the law, and to provide safety to our residents,” the mayor’s office said in a statement. “In this case, unfortunately, it appears an officer violated that trust at every level.”
The announcement of charges comes one day before the city’s deadline to release video showing McDonald’s death. Until Nov. 19, officials had resisted such a release, fearing it could jeopardize investigations. Others said it could spur major protests in reaction to footage that even Van Dyke’s lawyer admits is “graphic, disturbing and difficult to watch.”
That is why Emanuel met Monday with activists and community leaders to discuss the coming release and what it might mean for the city. One of those who attended, the Rev. Ira Acree, said the mayor urged him and others to use their influence to ensure that any subsequent demonstrations are peaceful.
“Many in the community feel betrayed,” Acree, a pastor at the Greater St. John Bible Church, told reporters after the meeting. “Protests are imminent.”
It’s not like Chicagoans don’t know already, at least in general terms, McDonald’s story. But it’s another thing to see it with their own eyes — a fact that’s been illustrated again and again in recent years, with everything from a New York police officer’s chokehold of Eric Garner to Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancee in an elevator. The release of the video usually stirs up fresh outrage and indignation.
For this reason, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass has said the video “could tear Chicago apart.”
“Chicago is on the tipping point,” the Rev. Roosevelt Watkins said, according to CNN affiliate WLS. “We could be just like Ferguson.”
Watkins is referring to Ferguson, Missouri, which imploded in protests and riots after a white police officer shot to death unarmed black teen Michael Brown in 2014.
Unrest in the St. Louis suburb lasted for months afterward, with activists pointing to the incident as an example of African-Americans’ suffering, and in this case dying, at the hands of white police officers. The tensions still linger, even after a grand jury decided not to charge the then-Ferguson officer, Darren Wilson, with anything related to the shooting.
But while Laquan McDonald was black and the officer who shot him is white, what happened in Chicago differs from what happened in Ferguson in a few key ways.
Michael Brown also was accused of acting out, and he was also shot dead by a police officer. Yet the 17-year McDonald was armed, unlike Brown.
Van Dyke confronted him knowing that McDonald had “punctured a tire on a police car,” according to his attorney.
One major difference between the final moments of Brown and McDonald is that the latter were captured on video.
Prior to charges being filed against Van Dyke, Acree, the pastor and activist, predicted significant demonstrations after the video comes out.
“If there would be no protest, that would mean that we have become immune to this madness,” he said.
The city agreed in April to pay $5 million to McDonald’s family, though the family had not filed a lawsuit.
McDonald was a ward of the state at the time of his death, according to a spokeswoman with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. A few days before he was killed, the department gave him over to the custody of a relative, she said.
CNN’s Sonya Hamasaki, Jason Kravarik, Sheena Jones and Joshua Berlinger contributed to this report.