I was vaguely aware that the Chicago police had shot a black teenager last year and hadn’t released the video.
Nothing at all happens until five minutes in, when the car arrives at the scene:
Eric Raymond talks us through the shooting of Laquan McDonald:
The key portion of the video starts at about 5:19. The blade is visible in McDonald’s right hand; he draws it and brandishes it at 5:25 while facing slightly to the right of a police car that has him in its headlights. At 5:30 you can see that an officer has lined up a pistol on him.
At 5:32 he begins to turn towards the officers. One shoots immediately; he spins and goes down. At that point the officers go out of frame, but we can see at least one dust puff from an incoming bullet at 5:35. We see him either trying to get up off the ground at 5:36 or having a convulsion that simulates the motion; his head and shoulders rise slightly. As late as 5:38 his hands seem to be still moving.
We know from the autopsy that two bullets hit him when he was up and another 14 when he was down (or 15; accounts are inconsistent, and some may be counting at least one round that clearly missed and caused the dust puff).
Now let’s consider this from the responder’s point of view.
The first thing to be clear on is that McDonald was behaving in a crazily aggressive way when he died. You don’t pull a knife and brandish it in the presence of two cop cars if you’re thinking at all sanely.
If I had been a cop on the scene I would immediately have thought “angel dust”, and in fact the autopsy revealed that McDonald was high on PCP. This drug induces violence, freak strength, and insensitivity to pain.
This is a situation that amply justifies drawing a weapon and preparing to shoot. From the video, McDonald was well inside the 21-foot close-engagement limit – he could have rushed an officer with that knife before the officer could draw on him and trust me that this is not a chance to take with someone you suspect might be on PCP.
If you are any of the cops you are going to be adrenaline-dumping by now. This is a dangerous situation even with your gun drawn; the thug could charge you, take several bullets and still stab you fatally before he goes down. It’s happened often enough before.
Now, he angles slightly away from the group of cops, but they have to be thinking that if he shows any sign of charging they must shoot before he kills them.
I want to impress on my readers that this was a completely justified reaction. Everything the police have visibly done up to this point is textbook procedure for this situation, including what happens next: he turns towards them and Van Dyke, the cop now charged with murder, shoots.
We are still in unquestionable legal and ethical territory until McDonald goes down. What the police have done so far – those first two bullets – is correct.
The next correct thing to do would have been to stop firing for long enough to assess whether McDonald was still a threat. One way this could have gone is: Van Dyke stops shooting, McDonald levers himself off the ground, Van Dyke resumes shooting until McDonald is down again. That would still have been a “good shoot” for which Van Dyke would be neither legally nor morally culpable.
But that does not appear to be what happened. It appears that Van Dyke kept firing continuously at McDonald on the ground.
On the plain evidence of this video, what we have here is a criminally negligent homicide; manslaughter or possibly second-degree murder.
And if it is true that other cops conspired to cover it up, they should be prosecuted too. I can understand their reasoning – why let a cop who made a simple mistake under stress be ruined by the death of a drug-addict lowlife with a knife in his hand? But it was still wrong, because that habit of blue omerta covers up too much.