The video-recorded killing of Tyre Nichols that led to charges against police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, stirred echoes all the way in Chicago, where eight years ago another recorded death similarly sent shock waves across the nation and spurred public demand for police reform.
In the case of Laquan McDonald, a teenager fatally shot by a uniformed Chicago police officer in October 2014, release of graphic video provoked public outrage and immediate criminal charges against the officer, Jason Van Dyke, reigniting the embers of resentment in Chicago and calls for accountability against police.
The McDonald case led to years of reform efforts, including the departmentwide rollout of body-worn cameras and a 2019 federal consent decree mandating reforms in Chicago police training, use of force, data management and other areas. But lawyers who have been involved in the consent decree say slow reform efforts create an environment similar to the one that led to Nichols’ death in Memphis.
Nichols, a 29-year-old African American who worked for FedEx and was the father of a 4-year-old son, was dragged from his car by police officers from Memphis’ “Scorpion” street crime unit for alleged reckless driving. Video showed he was held down, kicked, punched and tased. Five officers were charged with murder. Two other Memphis officers were relieved of duty and three fire department workers who responded to the scene were fired, according to the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis.
Officials in Memphis and across the country were fearful that releasing video of Nichols’ beating death would serve as a flashpoint to civil unrest as McDonald’s and George Floyd’s deaths had been, despite Nichols’ alleged attackers also being African American.
When the Chicago consent decree was being drafted, community groups pushed for inclusion of requirements that would limit police power to engage with people suspected of minor and nonviolent criminal offenses because of the propensity for such interactions to needlessly escalate into violence, said Sheila Bedi, a Northwestern University law professor and an attorney who has been involved in litigation over the decree.
The language was ultimately not adopted, she said, though she added that the city could petition the court to modify the consent decree to include such provisions. Without such limits on police, and with the slow pace of complying with the consent decree overall, real reform appears far off, she said.
“What happened in Memphis could easily happen here,” Bedi said.
A common thread between both Nichols’ and McDonald’s cases was perception of a cover-up by police to protect their own. In the McDonald case, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 initially provided a statement that described the teen as the aggressor despite police dashcam video evidence that later showed the knife-wielding African American teen backing away as he was shot 16 times by Van Dyke, who is white.
In Memphis, police released a vague statement without any indications of wrongdoing by the officers.
Bedi said the “kind of brutal violence we saw on our TV screens” happens regularly in Chicago.
During the summer of 2020, when mass protests erupted in Chicago following the murder of Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Chicago police officers were captured via body cameras using “unlawful force” against protesters, she said, noting that the use of force was documented in reports from the city itself and the independent monitor reviewing the department’s progress in meeting consent decree goals.
“Those officers are still policing our streets, and that says a lot about the culture and intransigence of the Chicago Police Department and policing in general,” she said.
A Tribune article from last year explained how resistant the city and its police have been to federal intervention on police matters and challenges activists continue to face.
Attorney Craig Futterman, who is director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago, agreed that a situation like Nichols’ could happen in Chicago due to the persistence of what he called a toxic, pervasive police culture that turns a blind eye to violence against citizens.
“What happened to Tyre Nichols was very much about culture — dominant police culture and the culture in Chicago has been and continues to be resistant to change,” said Futterman, whose project successfully petitioned the court to release McDonald’s death video.
Some academics have called video — particularly the sometimes-shocking images captured by police body cameras — a main driver for police reform. Two years ago, criminologists and economists at Georgia State, American and Stockton universities who studied eight years of Chicago police complaint data found that police bodycams had “led to a significant decrease in the dismissal of investigations due to insufficient evidence,” and an increase in sustained misconduct cases against officers, according to the 43-page report by GSU criminology professor Volkan Topalli and three other researchers.
Video can make the difference between a citizen complaint tossed because of a lack of evidence and those sustained because of clear evidence of misconduct.
“It can be quite challenging for the investigators to distinguish truth from falsehood when police officers and citizens make contradictory statements. In these cases, the video footages can provide critical objective information about the incident and the credibility of police officers’ and complainants’ statements,” according to the 2021 report.
Video is “no doubt a game changer,” said Futterman, who added that video evidence can quickly push police to amend false statements that often exonerate officers of wrongdoing.
“If there was no video, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said. “Would it simply been written off in Memphis as (it was initially) in Minneapolis with George Floyd, or in Chicago like Laquan McDonald?”
Stretching back to the infamous Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police in 1991, video has altered the law enforcement landscape, not only in solving crimes, but also in confirming the veracity of statements made by officers and community complaints.
But Futterman cautioned that video alone won’t solve the root problem of violence and mistrust.
“Videos by themselves don’t wholly strip away racism,” he said. “Videos don’t necessarily always tell all the truth, but videos also are a game changer because they do provide real objective evidence of what actually happened. That’s been evidence that in prior decades … was totally absent.”
Unsurprisingly, topics of law enforcement and police reform have been major talking points in the campaign leading up to next month’s Chicago mayoral election. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s handling of Chicago police reform and the consent decree has sparked criticism from rival candidates who say she has not done enough to implement the court order’s programs.
Former high-ranking city staffers have also criticized the administration’s efforts. Lightfoot first came to public prominence as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hand-picked chair of the Police Accountability Task Force. She later broke with the Emanuel administration, criticizing its handling of crime and reform as not stringent enough and launching her ultimately successful campaign for mayor.
Rivals have seized on the lack of progress implementing the consent decree and a series of staff controversies have fueled further questions about Lightfoot’s leadership on the issue. U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, a candidate for mayor, has repeatedly criticized Lightfoot for last year’s firing of Bob Boik, who directed the Chicago Police Department’s constitutional policing and reform office. Boik was fired after sending an email asking for a reversal of a decision to distribute staffers to patrol instead of officer training, a move he said would harm reform efforts. Lightfoot previously said she wouldn’t get into “the details of a now-fired employee who sends off an email” and described the firing as “palace intrigue.”
Boik’s firing also drew criticism from former Lightfoot administration officials including former acting police Superintendent Charlie Beck, Lightfoot’s former chief of staff Maurice Classen, and her former deputy mayor for public safety, Susan Lee, who argued it would hurt the department’s efforts.
A separate Chicago police leader who worked to implement the department’s federal consent decree sent a resignation letter to Lightfoot in August 2021 alleging that CPD’s top leadership failed “to even feign interest in pursuing reform in a meaningful manner.” Lightfoot downplayed that as one person’s opinion and said the department continues making progress.
Ald. Sophia King, 4th, another mayoral candidate, took the criticism a step further this weekend, linking Lightfoot’s defense of an officer who was suspended but not fired for lying about associations with the Proud Boys to Boik’s firing.
“Fire the Proud Boy, not the officer in charge of the consent decree,” King said.
Tribune reporter Jake Sheridan contributed.