In Chicago, the year 2016 really began on November 24, 2015—the day the city released the infamous dash-cam video of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year old Laquan McDonald. “Sixteen shots!” would come to be the mantra of the protesters flooding the streets the night the video was released, and for the year to come.
As 2016 unfolded it seemed that the city was finally getting serious about police misconduct—a problem decried by black citizens and other cop-watchers (including the Reader) for decades.
Amid the public relations shitstorm that began after the video’s release, Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a Police Accountability Taskforce, and fired police superintendent Garry McCarthy and Scott Ando, the head of the Independent Police Review Authority. Nevertheless, in early December, the U.S. Department of Justice descended, beginning a comprehensive investigation into alleged patterns and practices of civil rights abuses at the Chicago Police Department. (Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan requested the probe, not trusting the city to sort things out on its own.) On December 16, 2015, 422 days after killing McDonald, Van Dyke was indicted on first-degree murder charges.
But for many, the promises of accountability and transparency that began pouring from officials in the wake of the McDonald video were too little, too late. Before 2015 had even ended, two more people were fatally shot by Chicago police officers, underscoring the fact that McDonald’s death wasn’t an isolated incident and furthering the public’s distrust of Emanuel. The killings of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones the day after Christmas attracted particular attention and fueled calls for the mayor’s resignation.
2016 thus also became the year that many city residents stopped believing police reform was possible, with some calling for police to be abolished altogether. Chicago police shot and killed 11 people in 2016, ten of whom were black men. (An 11th black man, 28-year-old Roy Morris, survived CPD gunshots in July.)
The first fatal police shooting of 2016 proper came at the end of January: 29-year-old Charles M. Smith. Then, in March, officers fatally shot 29-year old Lamar Harris. Police accused both men of firing at officers first.
Emanuel, meanwhile, made it through the winter, resisting calls to step down while other political careers were made and broken.
Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez lost her re-election bid in early March to Kim Foxx, who ran on a platform of police reform and harshly criticized Alvarez for her delay in charging Van Dyke and other officers connected to the McDonald shooting. Then, in April, two days after officer Sean Hitz fatally shot 16-year-old Pierre Loury—CPD claimed the fleeing Loury engaged officers in an “armed confrontation”—the mayor’s taskforce released a scathing report that cited a wide range of problems in the department and IPRA, and concluded that police officers “have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
Neither activists nor the media paid much attention to the fatal police shooting in May of 26-year-old Michael Johnson, a white man suspected of committing two bank robberies.
Later that month Emanuel proclaimed his plans to overhaul IPRA in favor of a new police oversight agency, and in June he promised greater transparency and faster release of information and footage of police shootings. Though he offered scant details on how this would be accomplished, shortly after the announcement, IPRA ruled three police shootings unjustified—a record, since, over nine years and more than 400 investigations, the agency had found just two other shootings unjustified.
Throughout the summer aldermen held community police-reform meetings while the DOJ solicited testimony about Chicagoans’ experiences with cops. During these forums citizens’ frustration about police violence seemed to garner unprecedented attention from authorities.
But these attempts at reform didn’t temper community anger or reassure local activists. Fatal police shootings of black men in Louisiana, Minnesota, and elsewhere throughout the summer continued to underscore this as a national problem, and the idea of outright police abolition gained momentum.
In July CPD officers fatally shot 50-year-old Derrick Love, who allegedly shot an officer in the leg. The next day, organizers from the #LetUsBreathe Collective and other groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement took over an empty lot across the street from CPD’s Homan Square facility, setting up a small tent city with free food and clothing, a library, and activities for children. The encampment continued 24-7 through the rest of the summer. Activists called it Freedom Square, describing it as an experiment in envisioning “a world without police,” and of demonstrating what the $1.4 billion that funds CPD could be spent on instead.
But just a few days after the establishment of Freedom Square, 18-year-old Paul O’Neal became the seventh victim of police shootings this year. The city released video of the incident with unprecedented speed—just a week after the shooting—and stripped the officers involved—Michael Coughlin Jr., Jose Torres, and Jose Diaz—of their police powers. (Thus far no criminal charges have been brought against the officers.)
The next month Emanuel announced that by mid-2017 IPRA would be remade into COPA—the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. But reform advocates were not impressed, arguing that COPA wouldn’t be a truly independent oversight agency, and that civilians, not mayoral appointees, needed to have final oversight of the police department. CPD also announced an overhaul of its use-of-force policy, asserting that the “department’s highest priority is the sanctity of human life.”
But in early November, an as yet-unnamed off-duty officer shot and killed 25-year-old Joshua Beal in the southwest-side neighborhood of Mount Greenwood, sparking an acrimonious showdown between police protesters and police sympathizers. Later that month, in the span of a week, CPD officers shot and killed four more people: 26-year-old Darius Jones, 19-year-old Kajuan Raye, 37-year-old Cleotha Mitchell, and 33-year-old Richard Grimes. Of these, Raye’s case attracted the most attention from police critics. Though officers alleged that he had pointed a gun at them while fleeing, no weapon was recovered from the scene. The officer who shot Raye, Sergeant John Poulos, was stripped of his police powers within days.
Now, as 2016 comes to a close, police-community relations in Chicago don’t seem to have improved—both shootings and protests continue with regularity, while the dramatic changes promised in police department policies have yet to take effect.
In addition, the looming presidency of Donald Trump, who ran on a law-and-order platform, has observers worried that the ongoing DOJ investigation will peter out without federal obligations to reform CPD. Though the time it takes police top brass to discipline officers appears to have quickened, and some information about attendant circumstances is emerging in days not years, it’s hard to tell whether the department has yet taken the proactive, internal steps needed to change its culture and its practices. Indeed, it may take many more years for CPD to undo the damage done in 2016. v
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of people shot in Chicago in December 2015.