Chicago Cop Accused of Murdering Black Teen Belonged to Culture of Abusive Policing

Chicago political leaders would have the public believe that the behavior of a Chicago police officer who faces murder charges for the October 20 fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teen carrying a knife, was not part of a larger pattern of abusive policing.


But according to Chicago Police Department disciplinary records obtained and analyzed by investigative journalists at University of Chicago and non-profit Invisible Institute’s Citizens Police Data Project, Officer Jason Van Dyke was among a group of police officers who have repeatedly been accused of abusive practices by the public.

“Complaints are disproportionately filed against a small subset of the Chicago Police Department,” the Institute website said. “Repeat officers—those with 10 or more complaints—make up about 10 percent of the force but receive 30 percent of all complaints. They average 3.7 times as many complaints per officer as the rest of the force.”

Jerome Finnigan, the officer with the most citizen complaints—68 in a 17-year career—was never disciplined. In 2011, he was convicted of robbing drug dealers and planning to kill another officer he thought would turn him in, the Chicago Tribune reported. Finnigan told the judge at his sentencing, "My bosses knew... This wasn't the exception to the rule. This was the rule."

Van Dyke is the first Chicago police officer in more than 30 years to be charged with murder for an on-duty shooting. A dashboard video released this week shows he repeatedly shot McDonald, who was on the street and moving away as police cars converged, even after the teen fell to the pavement. Van Dyke fired 16 shots—all of the bullets in his gun.

The Institute’s police disciplinary database shows that Van Dyke had a long record of citizen complaints about his abusive policing. 

“We don’t have all of Van Dyke’s complaints but… the misconduct complaints from Van Dyke that we do have in our data tool show by and large excessive force and racial slurs,” Invisible Institute’s Alison Flowers told Chicago’s ABC-TV affiliate. “He has largely operated with impunity and under a code of silence with the same huddle of officers again and again.”  

The Institute’s information about Van Dyke also documents the results of internal reviews in which officers' superiors mostly rejected public complaints seeking disciplinary action. In other words, little was done to rein in abusive cops.

Van Dyke’s disciplinary record fits this pattern. The Invisible Institute’s data, obtained after litigation and Freedom of Information Act requests, runs from 2002 to 2008, and 2011 to 2015 and found 20 complaints against Van Dyke that subsequently were “not sustained,” or where he was “exonerated” or the complaint deemed “unfounded,” or where no outcome was recorded. The records themselves are terse, but reveal an officer known to shoot at suspects, rough them up in arrests, conduct illegal searches, and use racial slurs.

Of the five complaints that were “not sustained,” several concerned excessive force during arrests and one for “use of a firearm/off-duty injury.” Four complaints that were “exonerated” included an illegal search and arrest of a driver, searching premises without a warrant and an unspecified “domestic incident.” Five more complaints were deemed “unfounded,” including more allegations of excessive force during an arrest and an on-duty use of a firearm. The remaining six complaints filed did not record an outcome, but included several allegations of misconduct and verbal abuse.

The Chicago Tribune reported that a man who was seriously injured in a 2007 traffic stop by Van Dyke and his partner later won $350,000 in damages in federal court. Recalling the look on the officers’ faces when the judgment was read, Ed Nance told the newspaper, “They looked like, OK, so what, go (back) to work… They was back on the street like nothing ever happened.”    

The Institute’s records show that between March 2011 and September 2015, 28,567 complaints were filed and less than 2 percent resulted in any disciplinary actions taken against the officers. Of those 28,567 complaints, 335 resulted in “no penalty,” 580 brought a “reprimand,” 797 resulted in a “suspension less than a week,” 254 brought a “suspension greater than a week” and 33 resulted in “termination.” Complaints filed by black and Latinos were more likely to be ignored than complaints filed by whites.

“Black Chicagoans filed 61 percent of all complaints in the database, but make up only 25 percent of sustained complaints [or findings against the officers],” the Institute reported. “Fifteen percent of complaints filed by Hispanics were sustained. White Chicagoans––who filed 21 percent of total complaints––account for 58 percent of sustained complaints.”

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, said the Chicago Police Department holds its "officers to a high standard and obviously in this case Jason Van Dyke violated… basic moral standards that bind our community together.” Yet the police disciplinary data obtained suggests otherwise.

“The information and stories we have collected here are intended as a resource for public oversight,” the Institute’s website said. “Our aim is to create a new model of accountability between officers and citizens.”

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