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Release of Chicago police video reignites debate over excessive force

Police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s arrest for first-degree murder is just the latest in a series of controversial cases where officers have used extreme force against civilians. For some perspective on the situation, Judy Woodruff speaks to David Klinger of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Jamie Kalven of Invisible Institute and Mark Konkol of DNAinfo Chicago.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And now, for a law enforcement perspective on this video and the events it captures, we turn to David Klinger. He's professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis, and a former police officer. He is also author of "Into the Kill Zone: A Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force," a book based on firsthand interviews with police officers who have shot people while on duty.

    David Klinger, welcome to the program.

    After looking at this video, what does it tell you about what happened on that night in October a year ago?

    DAVID KLINGER, University of Missouri-Saint Louis: What I see is, I see a tactical failure on the part of the officer that ended up shooting, as well as his partner.

    And what I mean by that is, police officers, when they're dealing with individuals who are reportedly armed with an edged weapon, a knife, a hatchet, a machete, what they're trained to do is, they are trained to try to keep distance.

    And so if you look at the video, what we see from the back of Mr. McDonald as he's walking toward these police officers is, he moves away and the officers actually move towards him away from their vehicle. And so that's the very first thing that I saw. And I'm thinking, this really doesn't make any sense.

    I was thinking at first perhaps there was maybe some innocent people on the opposite side of the street. I checked the video a couple, three times. There is no evidence that there were any other citizens who might be in jeopardy, and so it didn't make any sense.

    And then, when the gunshots start to ring out, I couldn't understand why shots were being fired. Then McDonald falls down, and I don't understand why additional shots are fired. And so, as I look at this, I am scratching my head, figuratively, because it doesn't add up.

    It doesn't appear to me to be what we call a reasonable use of deadly force.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, the lawyer for the officer is saying — we just heard him say that, from a different perspective, this officer saw something that we are not able to see in this video.

    What could that possibly be?

  • DAVID KLINGER:

    I don't know. And, at one point, I do agree with the lawyer that a video is never dispositive, because it doesn't tell everything.

    What the courts have ruled for a long time, for over 30 years now — or excuse me — for 30 years now, is you have to take the totality of the circumstances into account when you're looking at what police officers do. And then in 1989 in Graham v. Connor, the U.S. Supreme Court said that you can't look at it with 20/20 hindsight, but rather through the eyes of a reasonable police officer on or at the scene.

    And so, consequently, we do have to take into account everything in addition to the video that might be relevant. What that might be that would overturn what appears to be a clear-cut case of unreasonable force, I don't know what it is. But, certainly, the investigation is never over merely because a video comes forth.

    We have to hear the officer's statement, partner's statement, listen to the dispatch tapes. Maybe there's other video, maybe there's other audio we're unaware of.

    The bottom line is that the officer has been charged with homicide, with first-degree murder, and he deserves his day in court, and he deserves to have the opportunity to put forth a defense. And we will have to see what the defense is.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You started out describing what an officer might do approaching someone, you said, with an edged weapon.

    What is the standard of practice for an officer in a situation like this? I know you can't generalize across every part of the country, but in general, what would be the practice an officer is advised to take?

  • DAVID KLINGER:

    In a situation where you're dealing with an individual with a knife, a hatchet, some other form of edged weapon, you want to try to keep distance.

    And the reason you want to try to keep distance is if you are 30 or 40 or 50 feet away, it's awfully hard for that individual armed with that weapon to harm you with it. But when a suspect is within about 20 to 25 feet — it depends on what training block of instruction you might get in a given police department around the country — that's what we call the zone where an officer could reasonably perceive that his or her life is in jeopardy if someone is moving towards them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • DAVID KLINGER:

    And the reason for that is basically threefold.

    Number one, it takes time to perceive something and react to it.

    Were you trying to cut me off, ma'am?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    No, I was — because I just wanted to get to one — one question.

  • DAVID KLINGER:

    OK.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And that is, when someone is down on the ground, what justifies continuing to fire round after round at that person?

  • DAVID KLINGER:

    In this situation, I can't see anything that would justify it.

    However, if an individual was armed with a firearm, it really doesn't matter if they're standing up, sitting down or laying down. If they are moving that firearm in a fashion that could threaten someone, i.e., they could be continuing to pull the trigger, then that would be justifiable.

    But, in this situation, as far as I know — and I haven't heard any claim that there was any indication at all that the suspect was armed with a firearm — it wouldn't make any sense to continue to fire.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Professor David Klinger, University of Missouri-Saint Louis, we thank you.

  • DAVID KLINGER:

    Thank you for having me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, next, we hear from two reporters who have been closely following these events. They both have years of experience covering Chicago crime, policing, and race relations.

    Mark Konkol is a columnist at DNA Info. It's a neighborhood reporting site. In 2011, he and a team at The Chicago Sun-Times won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on violence, crime and policing in Chicago. And Jamie Kalven is a freelance journalist. He uncovered the autopsy report showing that Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke. Kalven is also the founder of the Invisible Institute. It's a nonprofit journalism project that recently released tens of thousands of pages of civilian complaints filed against the Chicago Police Department.

    And, gentlemen, we thank you both for being with us.

    Mark Konkol, let me start with you.

    How does this incident fit into the bigger picture of Chicago police relations with the African-American community in that city?

  • MARK KONKOL, DNAinfo:

    Well, I think that it's just a big example of what's been happening for a long time.

    There is a severe lack of trust between people who live in poverty-stricken communities that are crippled by violence and fractured gang wars. And Chicago — the Chicago Police Department, there's a lot of good cops on the department. I would say the overwhelming majority, 90 percent, 95 percent — and there's been stories written that, you know, there is a few officers that are troubled.

    But, overall, the police department has a generational problem that a federal judge said was a culture that's of the public interest, and that is the thin blue line code of silence within the department. And it's something that's really wrong with the department.

    And Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle recently said that the culture of law enforcement isn't trusted, and it's just — this incident highlights that to the nth degree. And the protests really aren't just about one incident. It's about being fed up.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • MARK KONKOL:

    And I think that's the message that these protesters have been sending and that public officials have been sending as well.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Let me turn to you, Jamie Kalven.

    As we said, you were part of the effort to uncover the documents that showed just what happened on that night and a broader practice among Chicago police. It's been 13 months since Laquan McDonald was killed — died.

    What could explain the delay in releasing this video and in charging this officer, as he was yesterday?

  • JAMIE KALVEN, Invisible Institute:

    I think that's the essential question at this point. Everything that we now know the day after the video was released was known by the city, by the department within hours of Laquan McDonald's death.

    There were multiple witnesses, police witnesses, civilian witnesses. There was the video, and the autopsy you referred to before was actually conducted at 8:30 the next morning with an investigator from the Independent Police Review Authority, the city agency tasked with investigating police shootings in the room.

    So, you know, with all of that information, the information that has been the basis now for the indictment of officer Van Dyke, the city put out, the police department put out a press release saying that the young man had approached and lunged toward the police officers and was shot as an act of self-defense on the part of officer Van Dyke.

    They have to have known that that was a fabrication. Now, 13 months later, we're getting a quite different narrative. So, I mean, this — if this had been a gang shooting in Chicago, with this amount of evidence, witnesses, video, the information from the autopsy, I imagine it would have been weeks, you know, a matter of a few weeks before an indictment was returned.

    So I think — I don't know the answer to that question, but I think it is the question of the moment.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Mark Konkol, what — what do you know about your reporting on the Chicago police that could explain this, the delay?

  • MARK KONKOL:

    Well, one of the — there is a provision in the Chicago Police Department's union contract that says when there is a complaint of misconduct against an officer, the city, the citizen review board is not allowed to release the name or any — identify the officer in any way unless the complaint is sustained.

    When we bring up the fact that officer Van Dyke had 18 misconduct complaints, all of them which were not sustained, some people think that's a red flag, and that that's something that the public should know when it actually happens.

    When there is a police shooting, reporters across the city file Freedom of Information Act requests to get the video of the shooting, and they're always denied for the same reason, that the case is under investigation. It's a very broad statement that police use.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And we heard the prosecutor…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • MARK KONKOL:

    … public records.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Excuse me.

    I was just going to say, we heard the prosecutor say yesterday it's more complex when it's a police officer involved.

  • MARK KONKOL:

    Well, yes, it is more complex. And it usually is.

    But there's — what happened here is that the city paid a $5 million settlement without a lawsuit being filed. The information didn't come up. And it wasn't until citizens, journalists fought to get the video released in court that we know what we know now.

    And I think all those things contribute to a lack of trust in the community. And these are the things that you hear Chicago aldermen saying need to be remedied. There needs to be more sunlight on this process.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Let me…

  • MARK KONKOL:

    If you want people that have been suffering from gun violence in these neighborhoods to be held accountable for cooperating with police, the message that's being sent is, we want the police to be under the same amount of scrutiny.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Jamie Kalven, let me just repeat what we heard Mayor Emanuel say just a minute ago, that: We want to get to a point in our community where young men see an officer and don't just see someone in a uniform and a badge, but someone who is a partner helping them reach their potential.

    Is Chicago making progress in that regard? We hear statistics that the number of officer-involved shootings is down in the African-American community.

  • JAMIE KALVEN:

    Well, that's only one measure.

    I spent a lot of time — I have spent a lot of time in recent years doing intensive interviews with young African-American teenagers on the South Side of Chicago in neighborhoods most affected by these patterns. They consistently say two things, first, that: If we have an encounter with police officers, we know they have all the power. And, secondly, if something happens in a random stop or some other kind of interaction with a police officer, something happens, we know we won't be believed.

    Until those fundamental conditions change, then I think there are all sorts of other — otherwise sensible measurers, in terms of building relationships and police officers interacting with residents in contexts apart from law enforcement — all these things make — make perfect sense — in the absence of accountability, in the absence of confidence on the part of citizens that, if police officers exceed their roles, violate the public trust, they will be effectively disciplined, then I think it just impeaches and undermines everything else.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, gentlemen, we are going to have to leave it there. Clearly, Chicago is a city in the spotlight right now, and I know we're going to continue to follow this.

    We thank you both, Mark Konkol and Jamie Kalven. Thank you.

  • JAMIE KALVEN:

    Thank you.

  • MARK KONKOL:

    Thanks.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And the problem of police shootings isn't isolated to the city of Chicago. A funeral was held in Minneapolis today for Jamar Clark.

    He's a black man who was fatally shot by police last week. His funeral procession passed Black Lives Matter protesters who have been demonstrating for days. Police also announced they have a fourth person in custody in the shootings of some of the protesters on Monday.

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