The cowardice of Chicago officials

Protests after Laquan McDonald shooting video released
Protests after Laquan McDonald shooting video released

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Story highlights

  • Mel Robbins says it took 400 days for Chicago officials to act in the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014
  • Robbins decries the delay of justice and condemns the "egregious" behavior of officials
  • She says their inaction has weakened the police force at a time that Chicago needs them the most

Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator, legal analyst, best-selling author and keynote speaker. In 2014, she was named outstanding news talk-radio host by the Gracie Awards. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It took officials 400 days to charge Jason Van Dyke in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald. 400 days.

How does a leader, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, justify waiting 400 days to charge an officer in a case when they have the entire incident on a "graphic," "disturbing" and "violent" video?
How do leaders justify keeping that officer on the payroll for those 400 days?
    How does a city, which is trying to build trust with the public, justify fighting the release of a tape that tells the truth?
    Here is what happened: On the night of October 20, 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald stood outside a Burger King in Chicago. He had PCP in his system and a knife in his hands with a 3-inch blade. According to documents from prosecutors, first obtained by DNAinfo.com Chicago, officers on the scene described the teen as having a "blank stare and a glazed look in his eyes."
    Police had been following the teen after reports that a citizen was "holding a male (later identified as McDonald) who the citizen had caught breaking into trucks and stealing radios," according to the documents.
    McDonald, according to a just released dash-cam video, was running away down Pulaski Road when the sound of sirens grew near. Several officers stated that they "did not see the need to use force against McDonald when they encountered him."
    But Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke did just that. According to the prosecutors' report, nine of the 16 entrance wounds from bullets he fired at McDonald had a downward or slightly downward trajectory. That is, fired when his victim was already down.
    State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said in three decades of law enforcement, she's never seen anything like the "video recording of the shooting. Before its release, she warned it will "no doubt tear at the hearts of all Chicagoans."
    Van Dyke was one of eight officers at the scene and started shooting just six seconds after he left his patrol car from 15 feet away. The video shows the teenager walking away from the officer when the first bullets were fired. The autopsy shows gunshot wounds to the teenager's scalp, neck, left chest, right chest, left elbow, left forearm, right upper arm, right hand, right upper leg, left upper back and right lower back. Investigators said that only two of the wounds can be linked to the time McDonald was standing.
    The video shows the teenager lying on the ground for 13 seconds while shots continued to strike his body and the pavement near him. Alvarez described seeing his arms and body "jerking" as bullets hit him. As the teenager gasped for breath, dying on the ground, Van Dyke reloaded his gun, according to the prosecutors' documents; his partner reportedly told him to stand down.
    The charging documents state "none of the officers observed McDonald attempt to throw his knife at defendant (Van Dyke), jump or lunge toward Van Dyke, raise his knife as if to stab defendant, or did anything that was obviously threatening toward defendant beyond what was depicted in the video and not responding to commands while carrying a knife."
    Rahm Emanuel called the shooting "hideous" and with "no justification." It was so appalling that the city offered McDonald's family a $5 million settlement before they had even hired a lawyer.
    Emanuel claimed he hadn't seen the video, which is either a lie or an outrageous sign of apathy.
    Regardless of how horrific the video is, the case should not and cannot be tried in the media, the streets or on social media.
    A jury will scrutinize this case in a court of law, and the officer deserves due process. But we must scrutinize the actions of the officials in Chicago, which were egregious.
    Emanuel just held a news conference appealing to Chicago residents to treat the release of this tape as "a moment of understanding and learning." Officials in Chicago are the ones who need the moment of understanding and learning.
    True leaders don't hide the truth, they reveal it. True leaders focus on doing what's right. Not delaying the tough decision until it "feels" like the right time.
    True leaders understand who they serve: the community; not themselves.
    When leaders fail to move quickly and condemn the actions of someone such as Van Dyke, they fail to lead.
    Alvarez admitted that she's known for months that she would charge Van Dyke but only "moved up" the charges because the dash-cam video was about to be released. Chicago officials have been fighting the release of the tape the entire time.
    This is a disgrace. Chicago officials had an opportunity to be courageous; instead they were cowards.
    They failed Laquan McDonald, and they failed the community. And guess who they just hurt the most: the Chicago Police force.
    The majority of police officers are incredible men and women who suit up every day to protect and serve their communities. By waiting 400 days to charge Van Dyke, as he collected a paycheck, it looks like the city is not only protecting Van Dyke, it is dragging its feet on justice.
    By protecting Van Dyke, the entire police force absorbs the blow as the public trust erodes and anger builds. And unfortunately this is the time when Chicago needs our men and women in blue more than ever.