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Wife of cop charged in Laquan McDonald killing says sheriff yanked job offer

Image of defendant and lawyer in court

(Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)
Steven “Randy” Rueckert, left, and Daniel Herbert, attorneys for Jason Van Dyke, confer with Van Dyke during court Aug. 11, 2017. Van Dyke was at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago for a hearing on the shooting of Laquan McDonald.

By: Christy Gutowski | Contact Reporter
Chicago Tribune

The wife of indicted Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke says she was set to begin training last week as a Cook County sheriff’s deputy but that the job offer was abruptly yanked because of her husband’s infamous case.

After undergoing a year of tests and interviews, Tiffany Van Dyke said, she was scheduled to begin four months of training at the academy when, just four days before her March 20 start date, she was told without explanation not to show up.

Van Dyke said she had already quit jobs as a full-time fitness instructor and part-time bartender, and bought expensive uniforms and equipment required for the $53,000-a-year position as a correctional officer at the county jail.

A top aide to Sheriff Tom Dart denied Van Dyke had been fired, saying her certification to enter the training academy remains valid for two years. Her tentative start date was delayed, said Cara Smith, the sheriff’s chief policy officer, over safety concerns she’d face working in the jail given the notoriety of her husband’s case.

Smith encouraged Van Dyke to seek a civilian post with the sheriff rather than to work in the jail.

“We’re not hiring to work at Macy’s,” Smith said. “It’s a totally different environment. We certainly are sympathetic to her situation, but our concern first and foremost has to be ensuring her safety.”

In an exclusive interview Friday with the Chicago Tribune, Tiffany Van Dyke said that from the beginning of the lengthy employment process, she was upfront about the identity of her husband, including applying for the job under her married name.

A front-page story in the Tribune last May told of the family’s turmoil since Jason Van Dyke became, in the words of his lawyer, Public Enemy No. 1 for the on-duty shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald in October 2014. More than a year later, the officer was charged with first-degree murder on the same day a graphic police dashboard camera video was released, rocking the Police Department and leading to a damning U.S. Justice Department report that found that officers are prone to using excessive force, often against minorities, and rarely disciplined.

Just last week, a new indictment was unsealed, adding 16 counts of aggravated battery, one for each time McDonald was shot.

As the mother of two daughters and the wife of an officer suspended without pay or medical benefits, Tiffany Van Dyke, 36, said the fallout for her family continues to be daunting. Her oldest daughter was reduced to tears Friday, she said, after someone wrote “16 shots” on her desk in art class due to news of the recent indictment.

“I need to be able to take care of my family. I need to be able to take care of my children,” Tiffany Van Dyke said. “It would have been a huge financial ease off our shoulders. It was something I was interested in doing.

“I do like helping others. I know it wasn’t going to be easy by any means. It’s a hard job for anyone to have to go into the jail and be a correctional officer. But I believe I’m a strong enough human being to be able to handle it, both physically and emotionally, but unfortunately they didn’t want to give me a chance.”

Van Dyke said the hiring process was thorough. She said she passed each step along the way, including physical agility, lie detector and drug tests. She also underwent a formal interview with an investigator, met with the sheriff’s Merit Board and even had a photo ID issued. She was also told to give notice to her employers, she said.

Attorney Daniel Herbert, who is representing Jason Van Dyke in the murder case, said he has reached out to Dart’s office to try to resolve Tiffany Van Dyke’s employment issue without “involving the courts.”

Herbert said he believes it was a political decision — an allegation denied by the sheriff’s office.

“I think his decision (to hire the officer’s wife) would be questioned, and it would hurt him politically,” Herbert said of Dart. “You cannot fire someone for an illegal reason. People are free to associate with whomever they want under the First Amendment, and if someone is being terminated because of who they are married to, that’s a violation of their constitutional rights.”

The Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s great uncle and the family spokesman, declined comment about the sheriff’s deputy job without more information but expressed compassion for the officer’s family. Hunter agreed the bombshell case has left victims on both sides and said his family, too, has experienced threats and backlash. He said Van Dyke should be tried in a court of law, not by “vigilantes on the street.”

“He was the one who did the shooting and acted as judge, jury and executioner,” Hunter said. “His wife and their children were not there, and people shouldn’t be on a witch hunt for anyone’s family.

“I feel sorry for his children, I feel sorry for his wife,” he said. “They’re feeling what we feel. We’ve all been dragged into something — a terrible tragedy that happened — that had nothing to do with us.”

Tiffany Van Dyke said she has had to change jobs at least once before, after getting a death threat.

The family has been struggling financially. Suspended without pay by the Police Department shortly after he was criminally charged in November 2015, Jason Van Dyke has worked part-time since last March as a $12-an-hour janitor for the Fraternal Order of Police, the union which represents rank-and-file officers, as he awaits trial.

That drew protests as well from those who called it another example of police protecting their own.

FOP President Dean Angelo Sr. said he continues to get death threats himself over the decision but defended the move as the right thing to do. He also chastised the sheriff’s office for its treatment of Van Dyke’s wife.

“It’s completely unfair,” Angelo said. “This is a mother who is trying to maintain some type of consistency within a home for her daughters who have had nothing but inconsistency.”

Tiffany Van Dyke said she understands possible safety concerns with the job at the jail. Besides applying for the position with her married name and disclosing her husband’s name and profession, Van Dyke said she had a one-on-one discussion with the sheriff’s human resources director earlier this month in which she offered to do “whatever it takes to keep myself safe and not cause any conflicts.”

Van Dyke said she was assured there was at least one other sheriff’s deputy with the last name of Van Dyke and that as long as she didn’t divulge her connection to the murder case, there would not be a problem.

“It’s harder, and harder and harder to care for my family,” she said. “It’s an emotional drain, it’s a physical drain. But my husband and I are very strong together, and we keep our shoulders back and our heads held high, and we take care of our family the best way we can. And if it means I have to work three jobs, then I have to work three jobs.”

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