Cop who shot teen 16 times has history of citizen complaints
Jason Meisner and Jeremy Gorner | Contact Reporters Chicago Tribune
April 25, 2015
It’s been seven years since Ed Nance was roughed up by a Chicago police officer who handcuffed him so violently during a 2007 traffic stop he seriously injured both shoulders, costing him tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills and lost wages.
Nance, a cable company employee with no convictions, says he will never forget the nonchalant look on the officer’s face when, two years later, a federal jury ruled he and his partner had used excessive force and awarded Nance $350,000 in damages.
“They looked like, OK, so what, go (back) to work,” Nance told the Tribune in an interview. “They was back on the street like nothing ever happened.”
When Nance was recently told that Officer Jason Van Dyke, who aggressively handcuffed him that night, is being investigated by the FBI for shooting a teen 16 times, he broke into tears.
“It just makes me so sad because it shouldn’t have happened,” Nance said. “He shouldn’t have been on the street in the first place after my incident.”
The Tribune has learned that it was Van Dyke who was on patrol in the Chicago Lawn District on Oct. 20 when he was called to the 4100 block of South Pulaski Road, where 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was acting erratically and refusing police commands to drop a 4-inch folding knife.
Within moments of arriving, Van Dyke jumped out of his squad car with his gun drawn and opened fire on McDonald, killing him, authorities have said. Lawyers for the McDonald family said the officer emptied his semi-automatic. None of the five other officers there fired a shot, according to authorities.
Earlier this month the U.S. attorney’s office announced a criminal probe into the shooting, which was captured on a dashboard camera from another police vehicle. The news of the investigation broke as the Chicago City Council voted unanimously to approve a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family even before a lawsuit was filed.
The investigation comes amid the public outcry nationwide in recent months over police use of lethal force against minorities, including in Chicago where last week a white Chicago police detective was acquitted on a legal technicality for a fatal off-duty shooting of a 22-year-old black woman in 2012. Van Dyke is white, while McDonald was African-American. Nance also is black.
Van Dyke has been stripped of his police powers and assigned to paid desk duty. Police have maintained the officer, whose name has not been released by the city, fired in fear of his life because the teen lunged at him and his partner with the knife.
The officer did not return calls seeking comment, and no one answered the door at his Chicago home Friday.
Attorney Daniel Herbert, who confirmed he is representing Van Dyke, called the 14-year veteran a “highly decorated and well-regarded officer with zero discipline on his record.”
“He believes he acted appropriately and within department guidelines,” Herbert said.
Department records reviewed by the Tribune show that over the years, Van Dyke, who has been assigned mostly to high-crime neighborhoods, has been accused by citizens of a number of abuses, from hurling racial epithets to manhandling suspects and, in one complaint, pointing his gun at an arrestee without justification.
But he was never disciplined for any of the 15 complaints that have been resolved, including the one Nance filed after his run-in with Van Dyke, according to city documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
‘A safe place for him’
McDonald, by most accounts, was a troubled kid. At the time of his death, he was a ward of the state, and although he had no adult criminal record, authorities said he had racked up numerous juvenile arrests. Autopsy results obtained by the Tribune show McDonald had PCP in his system at the time of his death.
Still, faculty at the Sullivan House alternative high school he had been attending in the weeks before his shooting remembered a gentle side to the teen, a jokester who gave hugs and liked to make people laugh.
“He would come up every morning and hug me, and he would do that with a lot of teachers,” said Ashley Beverly, one of his teachers. “He really liked being here. … (It) was a safe place for him.”
Principal Thomas Gattuso said McDonald, one of about 20 wards of the state in the school of 340 students, was likely on track to graduate when he turned 19.
At the time of his death, McDonald was in the temporary custody of his 25-year-old uncle. But the teen’s mother had initiated a petition to regain custody of McDonald in May. Up until the shooting, McDonald’s mother had been allowed supervised visits by a Cook County Juvenile Court judge in anticipation of granting her custody petition.
Through her lawyers, McDonald’s mother declined to be interviewed for this story. His uncle also did not want to be interviewed.
On the night he was killed, McDonald was allegedly trying to break into vehicles in a trucking yard at 41st Street and Kildare Avenue in the city’s Archer Heights neighborhood.
The first two officers to respond tailed McDonald, one on foot and the other in a marked police SUV, as he walked several blocks along 40th Street, refusing to drop the knife. Near the intersection with Pulaski Road, McDonald punctured one of the tires of the SUV with his knife before striking the windshield with the weapon and then walking or jogging away from the officers through a nearby Burger King parking lot, about half a mile from where he was first spotted by police.
At that point, the squad car equipped with the dashboard camera arrived at the scene, and officers continued to follow McDonald as he walked down Pulaski.
The dash camera video has not been made public by city officials. Lawyers for McDonald’s mother, Michael Robbins and Jeffrey Neslund, also have declined to release the video in part because of the ongoing criminal investigation.
But the attorneys gave a detailed account of the video, saying it first showed McDonald jogging south on Pulaski in the middle of the street as Van Dyke’s marked police SUV stopped in front of him.
The teen then veered away from Van Dyke and his partner, walking to the middle of the two southbound lanes. Both officers then got out of their vehicle and were standing about 12 to 15 feet away from the teen when Van Dyke opened fire.
The first shots caused McDonald to spin and fall to the ground. A puff of smoke then rose from his body as he was lying in a fetal position, followed by another and another, Neslund said.
“There’s jerking consistent with him getting shot,” Neslund said.
About 16 seconds elapsed from the time McDonald hit the ground to the time the last puff of smoke was visible. Another officer then emerged into the view of the camera and kicked an object — possibly the knife — out of McDonald’s hand. At no point on the video was McDonald seen lunging at anyone, according to the attorneys.
Robbins offered a stark summary of the incident: “It starts out as an unjustified shooting, and it turns into some kind of sadistic execution.”
‘You only live once’
At the scene that night, Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden said the officer had fired in fear of his life after McDonald lunged at him with the weapon. All Camden said about the teen’s wounds was that he had been struck in the chest.
“The officers are responding to someone with a knife in a crazed condition who stabs out tires on a vehicle, on a squad car,” said Camden, who prior to working for the union spent two decades as a spokesman for the Police Department. “You obviously aren’t going to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him. He is a very serious threat to the officers, and he leaves them no choice at that point but to defend themselves.”
A “preliminary statement” from the police News Affairs division, sent to the media early the next morning, said that after he had refused orders to drop the knife, McDonald “continued to approach the officers” and that as a result “the officer discharged his weapon, striking the offender.”
The statement didn’t say how many shots were fired or where or how many times McDonald was struck. Further questions were referred to the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police shootings as well as misconduct allegations, and no updated statement was ever released.
The autopsy on McDonald’s body was conducted the morning after the shooting at the Cook County medical examiner’s office. The autopsy report released to the Tribune showed that McDonald was shot once on each side of his chest. He also had single bullet wounds to the scalp and neck, two to his back, seven in his arms, one to his right hand and two shots in his right leg. According to the report, 9 of the 16 entrance wounds had a downward or slightly downward trajectory.
Altogether, the bullets left about two dozen entrance and exit wounds over the teen’s body. All were fired by the same weapon — Van Dyke’s Smith & Wesson 9 mm duty handgun, according to the report.
The report noted McDonald had a tattoo on each hand. One featured a pair of dice and the letters “YOLO,” short for ‘you only live once.’
Patroling most violent areas
According to police and court records, Van Dyke, 37, joined the department in 2001 and spent more than four years with a specialized unit since disbanded by police Superintendent Garry McCarthy — that aggressively went into neighborhoods experiencing spikes in violent crimes.
After serving as a patrol officer in the Englewood police district, one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city, he transferred in 2013 to the Chicago Lawn District, where the McDonald shooting occurred, records show.
According to Independent Police Review Authority records, Van Dyke has received 17 citizen complaints since 2006. At least three complaints in the last four years were for excessive force-related allegations, and another accused him of making racial or ethnically biased remarks, according to the records.
In one incident from April 2008, Van Dyke and his partner came upon what they thought was a robbery in progress of a convenience store at 71st Street and Ashland Avenue, according to the IPRA reports. They chased a male black suspect into an alley who allegedly made suspicious movements toward his waistband, prompting Van Dyke’s partner to take him down to the ground.
The man claimed in his complaint that the partner kicked him in the face and that Van Dyke drew his gun and pointed it at him without justification. The man was not charged with a crime and was treated at Holy Cross Hospital for injuries and swelling to his left eye. Van Dyke said in an interview with investigators he could not recall if he’d removed his gun from its holster that night. His partner denied kicking the suspect.
A year later, IPRA exonerated Van Dyke of the allegations, concluding his actions were justified and fell within department policy. The allegations against his partner, however, were not sustained because they couldn’t be proven or refuted.
More recently, in December 2013, Van Dyke was part of a team of 11 officers executing a search warrant at a home in the Englewood District, records show. An African-American woman who was at the scene later filed a report claiming the officers were physically and verbally abusive and used the “n” word toward those in the home.
In finding the complaint unfounded, an IPRA investigator noted the officers had claimed in reports that the complainant had been loud and disruptive at the scene and had to be arrested. “The officers at the scene acted with apparent restraint,” the report said.
‘It could have been me’
In July 2007, Ed Nance was driving on East 87th Street with his cousin one night when Van Dyke and his then-partner pulled him over, purportedly because the front license plate was missing on his mother’s Chevrolet — a claim disputed by Nance.
Nance alleged in his lawsuit as well as in his complaint to internal affairs that the partner ordered him out of the car and then slammed him over the hood of the squad car, causing injuries to Nance’s neck and face. Van Dyke then forcibly handcuffed him, pulling his arms back violently and causing injuries to the tendons in his shoulders as well as one rotator cuff, according to the suit.
In a deposition taken before the case went to trial, Nance said when he asked the officers why they were roughing him up, they swore at him repeatedly and threatened him with arrest. Van Dyke then threw Nance into the back of the squad car while they questioned his cousin, who was arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana.
Asked if he was concerned for his safety, Nance was quoted in a transcript as testifying, “Basically yes, because every story I hear about the police getting pulled over in my neighborhood, they beating them up, they pulling them out of the car. Some people die.”
After about 20 minutes, Van Dyke returned to the squad car and yanked Nance out painfully by the arms, according to the suit. He was issued a ticket for the missing license plate and told his mother’s car would be towed because of his cousin’s pot possession charge. Records show the misdemeanor was dismissed at the first court date.
In his sworn deposition, Van Dyke testified he was concerned Nance could be dangerous because he hadn’t pulled over immediately when his partner activated the emergency lights.
“Just didn’t feel right,” Van Dyke said, according to a transcript.
Van Dyke testified that once Nance was out of the car, he was loud and belligerent, causing Van Dyke to further fear for his safety because he might be violent or armed with a weapon.
When Nance’s attorney, Michael McCready, asked specifically why he was concerned about Nance, Van Dyke said, “His actions … his voice escalating, for one.”
Van Dyke denied using excessive force in handcuffing Nance and said he couldn’t recall seeing his partner slam him over the hood of the car.
In the months after the incident, Nance went through two shoulder surgeries and was taking medication for pain and anxiety that was making it difficult to sleep, according to his testimony. In October 2009, a federal jury found the officers had used excessive force, awarding Nance $350,000 in damages. The judge later ordered the city to also pay $180,000 in legal fees of Nance’s attorneys, records show.
By March 2011 IPRA cleared both Van Dyke and his partner of all the allegations due to a lack of evidence, records show.
“Although (Nance) sustained injuries to his shoulders, there is no way to determine the exact cause of his injuries,” IPRA concluded. “There were no independent witnesses present during the incident.”
In the five years since, Nance has tried to put the incident behind him. Surgeries have repaired his damaged shoulders, and he’s gone back to his second job refereeing high school basketball games. But hearing that Van Dyke was under investigation for killing someone brought it all back, he said.
“It makes me feel like it could have been me,” Nance said.