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What The Laquan McDonald Case Says About The Chicago Police Department's Culture


To Chicago now and the sentencing of police officer Jason Van Dyke. He was convicted in the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald. His sentence could come down today. We wanted to step back and consider what the case might tell us about the culture of Chicago's police department. Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve had a front seat on that culture. She used to work in the prosecutor's office for Cook County, which encompasses Chicago. Based off that, she wrote a book titled "Crook County: Racism And Injustice In America's Largest Criminal Court." Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NICOLE GONZALEZ VAN CLEVE: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So Van Dyke was, as you know, the first Chicago police officer in half a century to be found guilty of murder in an on-duty incident. Again, of course, another case of a white officer fatally shooting a black man. Many of those cases end in acquittals or hung juries or never even make it to trial. So let me begin by asking, what does it say to you that this one did and ended with a guilty verdict?

VAN CLEVE: Really, it was the video that was the game changer in this case. When I was doing my research for the book "Crook County," it was over a decade that I was observing, interviewing judges and prosecutors. And basically, the code of silence in policing stretched all the way into the courtroom. And so when there were cases where a suspect was shot and prosecutors - the story didn't really make sense, prosecutors were shamed or intimidated into whistleblowing. They would go up the chain of command and, at every point, be intimidated. In one case, a prosecutor described having an ash tray thrown at his head. And they blamed him and said, you're not a defense attorney. You're a prosecutor - as though the protocol in that culture was to believe police wholeheartedly.

And police, in some ways, governed by fear. They could not show up for cases. That would impact prosecutors' ability to win trials. All these little things were the tacit ways that police could exert their influence not just on the streets in these kind of misconduct cases or use-of-force cases. But they can, in some ways, control the prosecutors and the judges through intimidation.

KELLY: When you describe code of silence, the phrase you just used, explain what you mean and explain whether you think that is something unique to Chicago.

VAN CLEVE: You know, I don't think it's unique need to Chicago the code of silence basically says, you know, that you always believe the police officer. And you don't question their judgment, even if there's a dead suspect. Now, there's always grumblings in the court. In my study, 20 out of the 27 judges that I interviewed admitted that police perjury occurred. And six wouldn't even answer the questions - whether they were intimidated or whether that was part of the silence. So in some ways, when a police officer did harm, planted drugs on young men and women in certain neighborhoods, they would, in some ways, laugh about it as though it was just kind of the inside joke. And the fact that I was such a young law clerk doing this research study, and I could still know these rules - that to me showed how flagrant the culture was.

KELLY: Laquan McDonald's death led to a Justice Department investigation. And the final report from that investigation detailed excessive use of force by Chicago police and recommended all kinds of reforms. Have those changes been made? And were than enough.

VAN CLEVE: You know, they're - only 25 of the 99 reforms have been in some ways implemented since the Department of Justice 2017 report. But if you look and see which ones have not they - you know, I, in some ways, did an analysis. The use-of-force reforms...

KELLY: Right.

VAN CLEVE: ...Eight of them have not been implemented. Accountability reforms - nine of them have not been implemented. Community policing, ones that would help, in some ways, you know, show racial complaints that are coming in or cases of racial abuse - those are not being implemented. So, again, the police department is resisting the reforms that would disrupt this culture that we see is really a stronghold in Chicago policing and extends all the way into the court system.

KELLY: Nicole, thanks so much.

VAN CLEVE: Thank you.

KELLY: Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve - she's now professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.