MINNEAPOLIS: Hundreds of Black Lives Matter demonstrators and supporters occupy the street in front of the federal building on Tuesday after marching from the Police Department's Fourth Precinct. - AP
MINNEAPOLIS: Hundreds of Black Lives Matter demonstrators and supporters occupy the street in front of the federal building on Tuesday after marching from the Police Department’s Fourth Precinct. – AP

CHICAGO: Racial tensions soared in Chicago Tuesday as officials released a graphic video of a police officer shooting a black teen 16 times, shortly after he was charged for the death. The “chilling” video is the latest in a string of police shootings caught on camera that have sparked mass – and sometimes violent – protests and engulfed the United States in a debate over racism and the use of deadly force by police.

Dozens of demonstrators marched through the city’s busy streets, but there were only small scuffles with law enforcement and three arrests reported by the early hours of yesterday morning. The dashcam video shows officer Jason Van Dyke open fire on Laquan McDonald, 17. “It is graphic, it is violent, it is chilling,” Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez told reporters after charging Van Dyke with first degree murder. “To watch a 17-year-old young man die in such a violent manner is deeply disturbing and I have absolutely no doubt this video will tear at the hearts of all Chicagoans.”

Shot from an approaching police vehicle, it shows McDonald run down the middle of the street towards a cruiser, hitch up his pants and then start to walk away from Van Dyke and his partner. His body then spins and strikes the pavement. McDonald lifts his head, moves an arm and then a cloud from another gunshot rises up from his chest as he lays in a fetal position. He does not move as an officer enters the frame for just long enough to kick a knife away from his prone hand. None of the officers approach McDonald to try to help him as he bleeds out on the street, writhing once in the remaining minute of video.

Prosecutors said Van Dyke opened fire just 30 seconds after his cruiser pulled up to the scene and six seconds after stepping out of it. McDonald – who was holding a knife when he was shot and had earlier slashed the tyres of a police cruiser – made no threatening gestures to justify the use of deadly force, Alvarez said. It was the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in more than 30 years, the Chicago Tribune reported.

‘Build bridges’
City officials, who had tried to block the video from going public, were ordered by a judge to release it no later than yesterday. Alvarez said she had planned to wait until a federal investigation was complete but decided to press charges against Van Dyke prior to the video’s release “in the interest of public safety”. Mayor Rahm Emanuel appealed for calm and said he hoped the city could use the incident as an opportunity to “build bridges of understanding” between police and young men like McDonald. “We as a city must rise to this moment,” he told reporters.

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said that while “people have a right to be angry” and to protest peacefully, his officers would be “intolerant of criminal behavior”. McDonald’s family joined community leaders and city officials in appealing for calm. “No one understands the anger more than us but if you choose to speak out, we urge you to be peaceful,” they said in a statement released to local media. “Don’t resort to violence in Laquan’s name. Let his legacy be better than that.” The city approved a $5 million settlement for McDonald’s family in April. Police had initially said McDonald was high on PCP, acting erratically and lunged at the officers with a knife.

Cop Feared for his Life
Van Dyke’s lawyer said yesterday his client feared for his life and that the dashboard camera footage released by police is unreliable because video “distorts images”. Daniel Herbert told CNN that Officer Jason Van Dyke arrived at the scene 18 minutes after a suspect carrying a knife was reported to have threatened businesses and vandalized police cruisers. “The reason my client Jason fired his weapon that evening back in October 2014 is that he truly was in fear for his life as well as the lives of his fellow police officers,” Herbert said.

Herbert told CNN his client was afraid McDonald was going to attack him with a knife, adding the video was not an indicator of his client’s guilt. “Video by its nature is 2-dimensional. It distorts images. So what appears to be clear on a video sometimes is not always that clear,” Herbert said. Chicago Alderman Emma Mitts told MSNBC yesterday the video does not show anything that would justify the shooting and said Van Dyke’s conduct was “just unacceptable”. Mitts said McDonald’s family had not wanted the video made public but now wants action taken. “There’s a pain that the family is feeling,” she said. “The family don’t want to relive that pain over again. We expect change.”

The release of the video itself has been controversial. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton criticized Chicago city officials for blocking the video, which was made public only after an independent journalist filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Sharpton, speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, called for a special prosecutor to handle the case “because the politics here needs to be investigated.” The Chicago Police Department had argued that releasing the video would taint multiple investigations.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, appearing on CNN, said rising violence in big cities makes it hard to be a police officer. However, Bush said, “When they do what appears to have happened here they should be charged as was the case in this case.” – Agencies