Did dashboard video of black teen's killing prompt murder charge for Chicago cop?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now back to the news out of Chicago.

Within the past hour, the mayor and chief of police held a press conference about the police officer's killing of a 17-year-old last year.

RAHM EMANUEL (D), Mayor of Chicago: We need, as a city, to get to a point where young men in our community and in parts of our city see an officer and don't just see an officer with a uniform and a badge, but they see him as a partner in helping them reach their full potential, and they see in that officer a mentor, a little league coach, a leader in their church and in their community, which they are.

But we also have to get to a place in the city where officers who patrol communities in our city see a young man not as a potential problem and a risk, but they also are seeing that young man as an individual who is worthy of their protection and their potential.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This has been one incident in a number of shootings recently of African-American men by police officers that have sparked outrage. Protests in Minneapolis continued today over the shooting death of Jamar Clark there nine days ago. Today, two people were arrested after five people were shot last night in protests there.

Jeffrey Brown has more on both of these stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke is being held without bail after he was charged Tuesday morning with the first-degree murder of Laquan McDonald. The 17-year-old black teenager was shot sixteen times in October 2014, after Van Dyke, who is white, confronted the teen for allegedly puncturing a police cruiser's tire.

Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez discussed the charge this afternoon.

ANITA ALVAREZ, Cook County State's Attorney: It is my determination that this defendant's actions, of shooting Laquan McDonald when he didn't pose an immediate threat of great bodily harm or death, and his subsequent actions of shooting Laquan McDonald while he lay on the ground after previously being struck by gunfire, were not justified, and they were not a proper use of deadly force by this police officer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel condemned the shooting.

RAHM EMANUEL: This officer didn't uphold the law. He took the law into this own hand. Didn't build the trust that we want to see and wasn't about providing the safety and security. So, at every point, he violated what we entrust him.

JEFFREY BROWN: But after today's indictment, Van Dyke's attorney responded forcefully.

DANIEL HERBERT, Attorney for Officer Van Dyke: This is a case that can't be tried in the streets, it can't be tried in the media, it can't be tried on Facebook. With respect to certain comments that have been made by politicians, politicians who have not seen the video, where I believe my client's conduct has been described as hideous, I would state that those comments — they are irresponsible, and they're certainly unfair and prejudicial to my client.

Thankfully, politicians will not be deciding the fate of my client in this case.

JEFFREY BROWN: The city was under a court order to release, by tomorrow, the video recorded by Van Dyke's police cruiser dashboard camera.

Mayor Emanuel, who has resisted publicizing the video for months, met with pastors and other community leaders Monday to prepare them for what could be an intense reaction to its release.

Late this afternoon, after word came out that the video would be released, I spoke to Reverend Jedidiah Brown, head of Young Leaders Alliance, and asked him what he expected to happen.

REV. JEDIDIAH BROWN, Young Leaders Alliance: We can't predict the reaction, because even listening to the reading of, it was painful. I can't imagine the pain that will be felt when they see the video. There is a lot of anger, but the video is a vehicle that is unearthing a lot of the discontent that citizens on the South and the West Side of Chicago have had from police brutality, the lack of representation, lack of investment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, late last night, five protesters outside a police precinct were shot by three unidentified attackers.

PROTESTERS: We want justice! We want justice!

JEFFREY BROWN: The protesters had been demonstrating outside the precinct since the fatal shooting of a young black man by a police officer more than a week ago. Some witnesses claimed 24-year-old Jamar Clark was either handcuffed or restrained at the time of the shooting. But the police union representing the officers involved denied that allegation and said Clark had gained control of an officer's gun.

Today, police arrested two male suspects, one white, one Hispanic. And the brother of Jamar Clark has called for an end to the demonstration in light of the shootings.

But members of the Black Lives Matter movement, who have been credited with keeping the Minneapolis demonstrations peaceful, say they will continue to protest.

MISKI NOOR, Black Lives Matter: We will not bow to fear or intimidation. Black Lives Matter exists to fight against this type of violent white supremacy, dangerous anti-black rhetoric, and criminalization of black people. Because of that, we are recommitting our occupation of the Fourth Precinct until we get justice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Police say there were no life-threatening injuries among the five people shot Monday night. However, one victim underwent surgery for a gunshot wound to the stomach.

And joining us now for more perspective on both of these cases is Georgetown University Law Center Professor Paul Butler. He is also a former federal prosecutor.

Welcome to you.

Clearly, things moved quickly after the order to release the video, right? Did that surprise you?

PAUL BUTLER, Professor, Georgetown University Law Center: It did, in the sense that this shooting happened a year ago.

If the evidence is that compelling to sustain murder charges, you have to wonder why it took the prosecutor so long to bring the charges and why until today officer Van Dyke was a working Chicago police officer.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what does that tell you? What role did the video play, then?

PAUL BUTLER: You know, it doesn't denigrate the prosecutor to say that, in this case, politics played a role, as in every high-profile decision by a prosecutor.

This is an area in which the politics over the last year has changed. So, this is a prosecutor who is involved in a tough reelection battle. In this day and age, in some cities with big minority populations like Chicago, it's advantageous to a prosecutor to say that she goes after cops when they cross the line.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, a murder charge, first-degree murder is very unusual, extremely unusual, I understand, in the case of Chicago with the police force.

What does that say to you about the case that the prosecutors think they have?

PAUL BUTLER: You know, Jeffrey, a Chicago police officer hasn't been charged with murder in 50 years at least.

So, again, the prosecutor seems to think she's got compelling evidence. It's hard to get jurors to convict officers. Even when they think that they made a mistake, jurors are usually forgiving, because they think they're just trying to do their job.

So, normally, what happens in any criminal prosecution is that the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge. So, maybe the prosecutor is kind of throwing the book at this defendant, in order to get him to plead guilty.

Usually, in these cases, when officers are charged — and that's rare, even when they kill in the line of duty — but when they are charged, we usually see manslaughter or negligent homicide.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you think they might be leaving some room here for a lesser charge, possibly?

PAUL BUTLER: I would have to say, frankly, I wouldn't want to take this case to trial.

What's sensational apparently about the video is the number of shots, 16. But we believe that's not all that probative. If an officer reasonably believes that his life is in danger, he's entitled to use deadly force, that is, to do whatever it takes to kill the assailant.

I think what's more probative is the fact that none of the other six officers on the scene fired at all, and that officer Van Dyke fired within 15, 30 seconds of arriving at the scene.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, come back to what you were talking about earlier, the larger context in both Chicago, Minneapolis, other cities, but especially Chicago here, the mistrust, historic mistrust between the African-American community and the police force and officials.

PAUL BUTLER: You know, Jeffrey, I am from Chicago.

And I have to say, growing up, the police were kind of notorious in my South Side community for not treating African-Americans fairly. The city has paid over $500 million just in the last 10 years to settle police brutality cases. Now, hopefully, this is the moment that, regardless of what happens in the criminal prosecution, the city will use this as an opportunity to assess.

Clearly, the victim in this case was having some kind of mental health crisis. So the police need to be better trained how to address those situations. This also clearly makes the case for dashboards, for body cams for police officers.

We have to wonder, if there wasn't this video of this case, whether there would be this sustained attention to this issue in Chicago.

JEFFREY BROWN: You heard probably in our setup piece just now my talk with Reverend Jedidiah Brown, talking about that — those very issues, what he hoped might come out of it, even though no one quite knows what happens next.

In the press conference, we also heard the mayor, Rahm Emanuel, calling for a kind of moment, a testing moment for all of Chicago.

PAUL BUTLER: Yes.

So, you know, the reason that these issues are getting a lot of attention is because of this extraordinary activism that's come under the rubric of the Black Lives Matter social movement. So they're savvy. They're strategic. And they understand, I think, that if there is a violent response to this video, that that's not going to be in the best interest of this important social movement.

So we haven't really seen a lot of violence, especially, again, when these protests have been organized by Black Lives Matters. So, again, I think the citizens of Chicago will respond responsibly, especially because, in this case, the prosecutor is being proactive.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just very briefly, you do see a — from a legal standpoint, you see a progression in these cases in how quickly they have been brought and how — the stronger cases being brought?

PAUL BUTLER: Yes. Again, it's important not to underestimate the impact of all this activism. It's changing the politics, so that now police officers are in some ways being treated like other suspects when they're being investigated for crimes.

If there is evidence that they're guilty, then now they're being prosecuted, not all the time, not even most of the time, but some of the time. And from the perspective of activists, that's progress.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Butler of the Georgetown Law Center, thank you very much.

PAUL BUTLER: It's great to be here.