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October 11, 2018

Panelists Talk Sentencing, Police Oversight After Van Dyke Verdict

In the wake of Friday’s guilty verdict for Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, panelists convened at the University’s School of Social Administration (SSA) on Tuesday evening to debrief on the trial’s monumental significance.

“This is historic, no doubt about it,” said Law School professor Craig Futterman, who took legal action that prompted a judge to order the release of dash cam footage of Van Dyke fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old Black teenager. The footage became public in November 2015, thirteen months after the shooting, and Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.

Last Friday, a jury convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery with a firearm—one count for each shot fired.

“This is the first time ever—ever—that an on-duty Chicago police officer was held accountable for killing a Black man, woman, or child,” Futterman continued, adding that 75 percent of Chicagoans shot by police are Black.

Moderated by communications strategist and WBEZ journalist Sylvia Ewing, Tuesday’s discussion spanned a range of topics. These included possible sentences for Van Dyke, the media circus surrounding the trial, mental health in Black communities, and ongoing civil rights reforms in the Chicago Police Department (CPD).

The event featured four panelists who spoke at SSA’s pre-verdict discussion last Wednesday: Futterman; SSA assistant professor Reuben Miller; 99-year-old civil rights leader Timuel Black (A.M. ’54), who brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to campus for King’s first Chicago address; and activist Janae Bonsu (A.M. ’15), a chair of the Black Youth Project 100 and current social work doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. New to the group was Marion Malcolme, a clinician and SSA doctoral student.

Futterman said that Van Dyke would likely serve 60 years in prison. Futterman explained that this is because Illinois law mandates consecutive prison sentences of six to 30 years for Class X felonies, a category that includes aggravated battery. An exception to the Class X sentencing rule states, however, that felons cannot serve more than twice the maximum sentence for any of their convictions. As a result, although a sentence of the minimum six years for each of Van Dyke’s 16 counts of aggravated battery would add up to 96 years, his total sentence would be limited to 60 years.

However, Futterman cautioned that this sentence is not set in stone: there are “lots of legal moves” Van Dyke’s team could make ahead of his sentencing.

The panelists stressed repeatedly that Van Dyke’s conviction barely scratches the surface of systemic racism across Chicago.

In particular, Miller said, media coverage of the trial exposed people’s willingness to empathize with Van Dyke and other police officers. “Defense for Van Dyke took control of the narrative,” he said. “What the media did—talking to him, talking to his wife—was humanizing him.”

Bonsu agreed, noting that the trial focused heavily on how the trauma police officers experience can influence their actions while on duty. She pointed out that communities affected by police brutality also face trauma.

The panelists also argued that the media excessively highlighted the possibility of citywide protests and CPD dispatches of officers to counter protesters.

“The way in which the media played up the potential of violence of Black and Brown folks incites anxiety, incites fear,” Malcolme said. She added that the anxieties created by this kind of coverage have likely lingered in Black communities even after the trial. “That whole narrative, I think, really has an impact on people’s mental health. [The media] are just assuming that we’re basically going to act animals if we’re rightly, and justly, angry if it’s a not guilty verdict.”

At times, the conversation turned emotional. Bonsu talked about sobbing at length when she heard the verdict. Miller described his childhood as a ward of the state, as McDonald was, but said that his life turned out differently because of both community support and fate: “I didn’t run into my murderer when I was a kid making mistakes,” he said.

Twice during the panel, Futterman referenced the Donald Trump administration’s avowed opposition to a consent decree for CPD. If approved, the consent decree, filed in federal court by the State of Illinois, would require a federal judge to mandate sprawling civil rights reforms for Chicago police. Among these reforms is a rule permitting CPD officers to shoot only as a last resort, and then only when necessary to prevent imminent danger.

The consent decree would also require Chicago police officers to notify dispatchers every time they point a gun at someone, even if they do not fire a shot.

Earlier on Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he planned to file a statement in federal court opposing such oversight.

“Two hours ago, your president—sorry, he’s not my president—your president announced that the United States of America will oppose any consent decree in Chicago to address ongoing civil rights violations by the Chicago Police Department,” Futterman said.

He urged audience members to write to federal judge Robert Dow, who will rule on the decree.

Like last week’s pre-verdict discussion, the panel was broadcast to the University community via live stream. Other campus events following the verdict included a closed discussion on Friday evening moderated by Center for Identity and Inclusion staff, for students to reflect on their reactions to the trial.

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