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Why Jason Van Dyke's conviction matters: Cops are almost never found guilty of on-duty murder

The verdict against Officer Van Dyke marked a historical day in Chicago, where a cop hasn't been convicted of murder on the job in nearly 50 years.

by Tess Owen
Oct 5 2018, 9:46pm

Murder charges against law enforcement officers are rare; convictions even more so. But on Thursday, a jury in Chicago found a white cop guilty of second-degree murder for shooting a Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, 16 times.

The verdict against Officer Jason Van Dyke marked a historical day in Chicago, which hasn’t seen a murder conviction for a police officer in nearly 50 years. But it was also a landmark moment on a national scale.

Van Dyke is just the third law enforcement officer convicted of an on-duty murder charge since 2005, Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminology at Bowling Green State University who tracks police misconduct, told VICE News.

Van Dyke was also charged with 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, one count for each bullet he fired into McDonald, who was 17 years old. Prosecutors said Van Dyke fired 13 of the 17 bullets while McDonald was lying on the ground.

Of the 96 law enforcement officers charged with murder or manslaughter of a civilian since 2005, which is when Stinson’s dataset begins, just 34 have been convicted of a crime stemming from the shooting.

And a vast majority of those convictions were for lesser offenses than murder, like involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, or negligent homicide. Sixteen convictions were entered by guilty plea, and 18, including in the case of Van Dyke, by jury trial. Convictions in 20 of the cases are still pending.

The rarity of murder charges against police officers has a lot to do with the fact that police are held to a much higher standard than civilians are when they kill people. Generally speaking, officers need only prove that they had a reasonable fear that theirs or someone’s life was at risk when they pulled the trigger.

Read more: Cops getting caught on video hasn't led to more convictions

Given that McDonald was armed, albeit with a small knife, Stinson thinks that the murder conviction here would not have been possible without the infamous dash cam video that showed Van Dyke riddling the McDonald with bullets as the teen appeared to walk away.

“I don’t think Van Dyke would have been convicted or even charged, frankly, without the video evidence,” said Stinson. “McDonald was carrying a knife, and without the video the police would have successfully maintained that the shooting was legally justified.”

According to the Washington Post, police in the U.S. shot and killed 2,700 people since just 2016. Of those, like McDonald, 453 were armed with a knife.

Cover image: Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke (C) leaves the Leighton Criminal Courts Building under police guard after the jury finished the first day of deliberation in his trial for the homicide of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on September 5, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. McDonald was shot 16 times by Van Dyke after McDonald refused police commands to drop a knife on October 20, 2014. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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