Night after night, demonstrators marched in the streets of Chicago in the fall and winter of 2015, repeatedly chanting “16 shots” and demanding justice for 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
McDonald, like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, George Floyd and countless others, was a Black person who suffered a violent death at the hands of police.
Jason Van Dyke, a 13-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, said he feared for his life when he shot the teenager 16 times on the night of October 20, 2014. A year later, though, after a judge ordered the release of video footage from the night of the shooting, prosecutors argued the footage showed otherwise—and that Van Dyke had exaggerated the threat McDonald posed and was not justified in shooting him.
A Cook County jury agreed and, for the first time in more than 50 years, convicted a Chicago police officer of murder for an on-duty crime.
The murder of Laquan McDonald was the subject of an American Justice episode on September 3, 2021 on A&E. [Watch the episode “Shots Fired.”
Who Was Laquan McDonald?
Before his death—and the ensuing political and social fallout in Chicago—made headlines around the world, McDonald was a high school student who was trying to get his life back on track.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services removed McDonald and his younger sister from their teen mother’s custody when McDonald was just 3 years old; his father did not play a role in his life. After that, McDonald bounced around, living in foster homes, with his great-grandmother, with his mother, then with an uncle. His family called him “Bon Bon,” a nickname that referenced his chubby frame as a kid.
McDonald, who had mental health issues and learning disabilities, had been arrested 26 times and spent time in juvenile detention. The teen admitted to smoking weed every day and the toxicology screen from his Cook County autopsy found the mind-altering drug PCP in his system.
But at the time of his death, he was attending Sullivan House High School, a Chicago school for at-risk students and dropouts where McDonald was getting As and Bs in his classes.
“Nothing [bad] came up with him,” Thomas Gattuso, the school’s principal, told the Associated Press. “He never got into any trouble here.”
Why Did Police Shoot the Chicago Teen?
On the night of October 20, 2014, McDonald was in Chicago’s Archer Heights neighborhood., Police said they received a call that he’d been breaking into vehicles.
Officers responded to the call shortly after 9:45 p.m. and attempted to hold McDonald with their vehicles. They say he used a 3-inch knife to slash one of the car’s tires and scratch at the windshield. Van Dyke arrived soon after and opened fire on the teen. The officer emptied his gun’s magazine and was reloading when his partner told him to stop.
Police initially reported that McDonald had only been shot once in the chest—it took months and the efforts of journalists via Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover the medical examiner’s report, which showed he had been shot 16 times, both in the front and back.
According to court documents, McDonald was holding a knife and refused to drop it when officers ordered him to. McDonald was walking away from the officers, who pursued him on foot and in their vehicles, when Van Dyke stepped out of his squad car and shot him multiple times.
McDonald died on his way to Mount Sinai Hospital. All told, he’d been shot 16 times.
Fallout from the Shooting
Six months later, when the city of Chicago agreed to pay McDonald’s family a $5 million settlement, police still had not released many details about the shooting, including the name or race of the officer involved.
After a journalist sued the city, a Cook County judge ordered the police department to release the dashcam footage from the night of the shooting. On the same day the video was finally made public, prosecutors charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder.
“The timing [of the charges] fed into this belief that this was a coverup and would have remained a coverup if not for the judge forcing the Chicago Police Department and the city of Chicago to release the dashcam video,” Joseph McMahon, a special prosecutor who eventually took over the case, tells A&E True Crime. “There was a real sense of frustration and anger and fear.”
Then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy. The U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into the police department, which later found that officers routinely violated residents’ civil rights.
Amid fierce criticism about her handling of the shooting, Cook County prosecutor Anita Alvarez recused herself from the case and a judge appointed McMahon, then a prosecutor in another Illinois county, to take over. McMahon brought 16 additional charges of aggravated battery with a firearm against Van Dyke.
“This was a serious crime. Somebody was murdered and someone—Jason Van Dyke—needed to be held responsible for that,” says McMahon, who is now a partner in an Illinois law firm. “Jason Van Dyke had a very difficult job—and a job that very few people wanted—but he committed a horrific crime that night and wearing the uniform of a police officer did not give him absolution from that crime.”
Van Dyke’s attorneys argued that McDonald was dangerous and posed a deadly threat to the responding officers. At his trial, Van Dyke told jurors that he repeatedly told McDonald to drop the knife, but the teen ignored him. Van Dyke also said the teen was advancing toward him, and that the dash cam footage did not show his perspective.
“I shot at the knife. I wanted him to get rid of the knife. My focus was just on that knife. … That’s all I could think of,” Van Dyke said.
In October 2018, a jury convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery; a judge sentenced him to six years and nine months in prison. Van Dyke initially appealed his conviction, but dropped those efforts in September 2020.
“He thought it was in the best interest of all the parties involved, including the McDonald family, that there be some finality,” his attorney, Jennifer Blagg, told the Associated Press.
Van Dyke is eligible for release in 2022 based on the length of his sentence and credit for good behavior. It’s not clear where the former police officer is now. In November 2019, he was transferred from federal to state custody, but prison officials have not publicly stated where he is being held.
Law Enforcement Reform in the Wake of McDonald’s Death
McDonald’s shooting death ultimately led to court-supervised reforms within the Chicago Police Department, including increased training for officers on the use of force, more community policing, and stricter reporting requirements when officers point their guns at anyone, among other measures.
The nation as a whole, meanwhile, is still grappling with how to address racism in policing.
“We need real transformation,” Shane Goldsmith, a former Los Angeles police commissioner and the president and CEO of the social change organization Liberty Hill Foundation, told NBC News. “It’s about culture change. It’s about who we hire and how we train them and identify all the ways that racism gets perpetuated and embedded.”