Chicago continues to reel from the shocking circumstances surrounding the shooting death of 17-year old Laquan McDonald four years ago by police veteran Jason Van Dyke. The case sparked massive protests, the ouster of the police chief, the electoral loss of the state’s attorney and the first conviction of a police officer in 50 years for a murder committed while on duty. It almost certainly contributed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek another term.
Yet, should we have been so shocked—by what the video showed us and the longstanding police practices preceding it? If we take a closer look at Van Dyke’s history, as well as what we now know about trauma and implicit bias, we could have almost predicted this tragedy. It’s a cautionary tale about the consequences of a system that fails to train its employees properly or hold them accountable for minimal levels of standards.
At the time of the shooting, Van Dyke had, in his 17 years on the police force, accumulated 20 documented citizen complaints against him, mostly for excessive force. The Citizens Police Data Project estimates that Van Dyke had more complaints filed against him than 94 percent of other officers. Combining four datasets, it found that five complaints were not sustained, five were unfounded, four resulted in exoneration, five had unknown outcomes and one resulted in no action taken. Yet, none resulted in discipline or any meaningful consequence to Van Dyke.
Shouldn’t 20 complaints have raised a red flag to someone? With no public account of supervisors giving Van Dyke a directive to moderate his actions, why should he have felt any compulsion to change his approach?
Van Dyke’s trial revealed other serious gaps in his training. When he testified that the damning video “doesn’t show my perspective” he may have been right. In fact, plenty of research backs him up, if not in the way he intended. These studies illustrate how automatic associations, often unconscious, can warp our judgment to the point where we literally see what doesn’t exist.
Despite his lawyer’s claim that “race had absolutely nothing to do with this,” research tells us that race has everything to do with this. Take the almost sub-human terms used by Van Dyke to describe McDonald: His “face had no expression. His eyes were just bugging out of his head. He had these huge white eyes.” Those words are strikingly similar to Darren Wilson’s testimony about Michael Brown’s demeanor in the instant before he killed him: “He looked up at me, and had the most intense, aggressive face. The only way I can describe it—it looks like a demon.”
In a study entitled Not Yet Human, scholars Jennifer Eberhardt and Philip Goff identified many whites making a continuing mental association, if unconsciously so, of blacks to animals. Using stark terms, they write: “This black–ape association alters visual perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence against black suspects.”
In subsequent research, Goff found that police routinely mistake black boys as young as 10 for being much older and consider them to be “responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
And, in his now-famous “shooter study,” Joshua Correll of the University of Colorado and colleagues asked participants to “shoot” when they saw a man on a screen hold a gun, and to “not shoot” if they perceived the man to be holding a phone or wallet. Their findings: “participants are faster and more likely to shoot black targets …and to indicate don’t shoot for whites.” Later iterations of this scholarship suggest that holding stereotypes “affect how we see the object … at first glance, a phone may look like a gun in the hand of a black man.”
Or perhaps a lurch backwards looks like “advancing forward,” as Van Dyke testified. Even former FBI Director James Comey acknowledged this in 2015, stating: “A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational … The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two white men on the other side of the street—even in the same clothes—do not. The officer does not make the same association about the two white guys … and that drives different behavior.”
The behavioral effects of trauma is another growing area of scholarship relevant to policing practices. A review conducted by Strategies for Youth found that most police officers are not trained to understand that the presence of authority figures often trigger flight/freeze/fight responses in traumatized youth, regardless of guilt. This is particularly true for black youth, due to the disproportionate use by police of force against them. That knowledge, had it been employed, may have led Van Dyke to hold his fire or to use another strategy in apprehending McDonald.
None of that happened, of course. Laquan McDonald was killed at 17 years of age, and the ripple effects may be felt for generations. While convicting Van Dyke was a first step, the failure was not his alone. By not holding Van Dyke accountable for prior excesses or adequately training him to de-escalate encounters and mitigate his biases, his superiors failed to rein in his worst impulses. It is time that police training, recruitment and oversight enter the 21st century and provide officers with the skills they need to keep the community safe, and themselves out of prison.
Johanna Wald is a Boston-based writer on prosecutorial and policing reform, implicit bias and the school-to-prison pipeline whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Law Review, Education Week and USA Today, among others. She is the former Director of Strategic Planning at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org