A Former Cop's View of Police Use of Force, Jason Van Dyke, and the law-abiding citizens of Chicago

A Former Cop's View of Police Use of Force, Jason Van Dyke, and the law-abiding citizens of Chicago
West Chicago Police Department

This is not one of my usual Chicago history related posts but after the recent verdict of 2nd-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm leveled at Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke, I felt it necessary and also therapeutic for me to give my opinions regarding the Jason Van Dyke trial and verdict.

I was a gang/narcotics officer, a trained police “use of force” instructor, a master police firearms instructor and a police officer who, unfortunately, had to take someone’s life in the performance of his duties.

I will never try to “armchair quarterback” another police officer’s decision to use deadly force or try to critique a judge, jury, prosecutor or defense attorney because I was not in the officer’s shoes at the time and I was not sitting in the courtroom during the trial or served on the jury.

All I can do is talk about my experience, Illinois law the way it currently is written and how my experience may or may not intersect with what happened in the Laquan McDonald / Jason Van Dyke situation.

First, I would like to explain my situation and this is still extremely difficult to write about or discuss.

West Chicago Police Officer kills man with knife

West Chicago Police Officer kills man with knife

Back in November of 2003, sometime after 10:30 pm, my partner and I were conducting a surveillance of a suspected drug house on the north side of the city of West Chicago, IL.

I heard over the radio that a subject was threatening several individuals with a hunting knife at a house party.  I heard fellow officers responding to the call but we continued with our surveillance assignment.

After a few minutes, I heard officers state that the subject was leaving the house with a large knife and was ignoring officers’ commands to drop the knife.  We decided that we should end the surveillance and start heading in the direction of the incident in case the other officers needed assistance.

While in the vehicle, we heard “shots fired” come over the radio.  We activated our lights and siren and when we arrived at the last location given by officers we saw several police cars and nothing else.

I have to admit it was really strange.  I was expecting to see ambulances, yellow tape and lots of activity but instead, we experienced two seemingly abandoned squad cars and a weird quiet.  We could hear people yelling in the distance and ran toward that location.  I first laid eyes on the subject at this point and he was yelling that he wanted to die and that he was not going to go back to jail.  I could see him, or at least a silhouette of him, as it appeared as though he was trying to cut his wrist with the knife.  He then got up and started walking down the street again and I could see no blood on either of his wrists.    We caught up to the other officers and one of the officers, who was also a firearms instructor, told me that the subject had rushed at him with the knife and he had fired at him and was astonished that he either did not hit him or he was hit but it didn’t affect him.  In his words, it reminded him a little of the killer Michael Myers from the Halloween movies.

We couldn’t see any blood on him and he was continuing to walk down the street swinging the knife.  Multiple officers tried to convince him to drop the knife but he would just simply yell obscenities at us.

At this point, I requested that an ambulance be standing by in case we had to use deadly force.  They staged close-by but, as was the procedure,  would not arrive until we requested or the scene was secure.

I ended up walking behind the subject whose name was now known to me (I can’t remember if I learned of it over the radio or from one of the other Officers).  His name was Patrick.

I remembered telling other officers to stand off to the sides and not mask any of our fire in case there was a necessity to shoot.  At this point, Patrick stopped and turned around looking at me.  I estimated he was probably about 20 feet away or so.   We were all being careful to stay a good distance away from him for our safety.  I had my gun drawn and pointed down at a 45-degree angle.

Patrick looked straight at me and yelled, “I can kill you at this distance, you know that don’t you?”  I replied that I was aware of that but that he really didn’t want to do that.  I told him that if he simply put the knife down we could talk about it.  I told him that as far as I knew he didn’t hurt anyone and none of the police officers wanted to hurt him.

At this point, my gun was pointed at him with my eye focusing on my front sight post and my finger off the trigger.  Officers are trained, especially in stressful situations, to keep their finger off the trigger because you could be startled by anything from a truck backfiring to fireworks which might cause your finger to jerk and shoot someone accidentally.

I was also looking at the ground to count sidewalk squares because I knew that when your adrenaline spikes and your heart rate goes up you sometimes lose your ability to judge distances correctly.  I was also looking behind him because I needed to know if I had a safe backdrop and didn’t accidentally shoot an innocent bystander in case I did have to use my weapon.  I could see a clear backdrop and the next thing crossing our path was a bank parking lot about 2 blocks away.

Patrick then raised the knife above his head and acted as if he was going to rush me but stopped short.  My finger flexed as I suspected but was not on the trigger so no shot was fired.

Patrick was extremely angry now and yelled, “What the F*** do I have to do to get you to shoot me!”  I yelled back that I didn’t want to shoot him and I just proved it to him.

At this point Patrick started walking toward me very slowly with the knife pointed at me and yelling, “Shoot Me!” while slapping his chest.  I told him to stop coming at me and police officers are not trained to walk backward with a gun in hand for safety sake. I again yelled at him to stop and he yelled back, “What are you going to do about it?”

At this point your senses are in overdrive, I remember telling other officers who were advancing from the sides to stop and stay back that he was getting too close.   I also realized that ultimately he was slowly leading us back to the scene of the original call, in a large circle, and might have plans to hurt someone back at the party.

It was also a strange feeling because that morning I had just conducted a firearms training exercise for the department about the use of force against a subject armed with a knife.

I could see Patrick’s face clearly and he stopped advancing but we were staring at each other’s eyes and the only way I could describe it, even then, was like a scene in an old western when an individual has made a decision and they squint.  At this point, he did rush me and I fired three shots in rapid succession.

I didn’t hear the shots but I felt the pistol’s recoil.  It immediately got dark.  It was funny because even though I trained officers on the effects of “tunnel vision”, I didn’t immediately recognize that that is what I was experiencing.  Tunnel vision is your loss of peripheral vision because your blood is being immediately redirected to your heart, lungs and major muscles as a result of your body’s automatic response to a possible fight or flight situation.  Your heart rate goes from slightly elevated to over 200 beats per minute instantaneously.

I saw him turn and fall almost immediately after I fired those shots and heard no noise from him and no blood was visible.  I told everyone to stay back because I had no idea if I had hit him and whether or not he was still a threat.  I did not continue to fire but covered him with my weapon as my partner kicked the knife away from him and we handcuffed him.

We immediately told the ambulance to come out of staging and they were there very quickly they had only staged a block away.   The firefighter/paramedic, who I will never forget asked me if I was o.k. and I told him I was fine and it was the other person in custody who needed attention.

I knew what was coming next because I trained others on what happens after a shooting.  It was now a homicide investigation and I was the perpetrator.  I surrendered my weapon and magazines because they were now evidence.  The subject was transported. (I had no idea what his condition was but knew if probably wasn’t good).  I was driven back to the station and I immediately called my wife to tell her what happened.  I told her I was ok but I was worried about the guy I had shot.  I went into a room where nobody else was and prayed to God that I hoped he would pull through.  I didn’t have any animosity toward him and I know even though he threatened me and tried to kill me that he didn’t know me and had no real animosity toward me.

Any officer involved shooting that I hear about since then brings back terrible memories.  Anyone who thinks shooting someone is no big deal or killing someone even in the most justified situation is easy has never done it or is psychotic.

I did not have to give a statement that night and rightfully so.  Even though I was supposed to be a tough guy, cop, former military I knew from my training that I was probably in shock and taking a statement from me at that time would be pointless.  I also knew that until the investigation was over I refused to read any media accounts and tried to avoid any conversation with any other officers that might cloud or affect my true memories of the incident.  Not all police officers are given that training.

There were so many similarities between my situation and officer Van Dykes.  A subject swinging a knife and refusing to stop when there was a lawful reason to place him under arrest, his talking about stopping shooting to reassess the situation, the 45 degree angle of his gun at the time, his description of McDonald’s eyes and his concentration on the knife, the tears that he shed as he talked about the shooting and mine that are welling up as I am typing this.

It is such a tragedy when someone’s life is taken by someone else.  I have no idea what Laquan’s mother, father or friends are going through.  I do have some idea what officer Van Dyke is going through but my situation was investigated by the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office and the DuPage County Major Crimes Task Force and my shooting was deemed justified with no charges being filed.  Van Dyke was just convicted of 2nd-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm but strangely not guilty of official misconduct.  After the investigation, I did look at media accounts and talked to other officers.  I was eventually told by one of the detectives who is still a friend of mine who told me that the ex-wife of Patrick called and told him that she wasn’t surprised by what happened and to tell the officer that he did what he had to do.  I openly started crying when I was told this.

Unfortunately, this is the part of the article that is not going to be popular with most people who have seen the video of the shooting.  To be honest I have never seen a police shooting video that looks good.  No video ever of someone being shot looks good.  They all look bad.

I remember being in the academy at the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois in Urbana.  We were covering the use of force and when you look at all the statutes and case law that surrounds a police officer’s use of force and especially the use of deadly force it can overwhelm and sometimes confuse a young officer enough for them to feel like they should never use deadly force which unfortunately for police officers could endanger their lives or their fellow officers’ lives.

So, and I praise God for our instructors, they said that you could boil it all down to:

"You use deadly force if believe your life or the lives of others are threatened and the threat is imminent or in other words the threat is “right now!”  This simplifies things pretty well and has helped so many officers to navigate the sometimes complex statutes that can confuse someone to the point of paralysis.  We were also taught that, generally speaking, if you act in a manner that is without malice and that you did what you believe a reasonable person would do that you would usually be in a good situation legally and civilly but not a guarantee.

What some people may have a hard time understanding is that what Officer Van Dyke did was within the guidelines of a peace officer’s use of force in the Illinois Statutes.  While I believe that I may not have handled everything exactly the way that Officer Van Dyke did and I definitely wouldn’t have tried to cover up the shooting the way the City or other officials allegedly did I don’t believe that he should have been found guilty of 2nd degree murder or aggravated battery with a firearm.

Now, before the death threats start I want to clarify why I feel that way.

Again, I wasn’t part of the trial so I don’t know what other information had come out during the trial that may have affected the verdict but this is what I understand and this is how the Illinois statute reads:

PEACE OFFICER'S USE OF FORCE IN MAKING AN ARREST

(720 ILCS 5/7-5) (from Ch. 38, par. 7-5)

Sec. 7-5. Peace officer's use of force in making arrest. (a) A peace officer, or any person whom he has summoned or directed to assist him, need not retreat or desist from efforts to make a lawful arrest because of resistance or threatened resistance to the arrest. He is justified in the use of any force which he reasonably believes to be necessary to effect the arrest and of any force which he reasonably believes to be necessary to defend himself or another from bodily harm while making the arrest. However, he is justified in using force likely to cause death or great bodily harm only when he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or such other person, or when he reasonably believes both that:

(1) Such force is necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape; and

(2) The person to be arrested has committed or attempted a forcible felony which involves the infliction or threatened infliction of great bodily harm or is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon, or otherwise indicates that he will endanger human life or inflict great bodily harm unless arrested without delay.

(b) A peace officer making an arrest pursuant to an invalid warrant is justified in the use of any force which he would be justified in using if the warrant were valid, unless he knows that the warrant is invalid.

(Source: P.A. 84-1426.)

-------------------------------------------------

There are quite a few “and” and “or”s which again can be very confusing but if you boil the whole language down to the parts that apply to Van Dyke’s situation it shows that even if Laquan McDonald didn’t pose an immediate deadly threat to Officer Van Dyke, although he seemed to be closer than the 21 feet that is generally considered to be a deadly threat with an edged weapon, I didn’t see at any point or hear at any point that McDonald was compliant or attempting to surrender.

So if you take the portions of the Statute that apply it would read:

A peace officer need not retreat or desist from efforts to make a lawful arrest because of resistance or threatened resistance to the arrest and is justified in using force likely to cause death or great bodily harm only when he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape and the subject is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon or otherwise indicates that he will endanger human life or inflict great bodily harm unless arrested without delay.

Much of the statute covers the fact of whether or not the officer reasonably believes him to be a deadly threat but it is not, by statute, necessary.  Simply that a person is attempting to escape or evade a lawful arrest with the use of a deadly weapon qualifies as a situation where deadly force is justified.

That is the confusing part to most people and why it is always better to set your “mental trigger” at the threat of immediate death or great bodily harm but the statute is meant to cover you in other situations and also in the case of Officer Van Dyke.

With that, there are things that I don’t feel comfortable with such as the 16 shots that were fired.  In my case I only fired three and the person fell and I didn’t feel there was a deadly threat anymore.  I don’t know what Officer Van Dyke saw or thought from his perspective but the optics of 16 shots doesn’t look good I admit.  I had seen a video of a police officer running a suspect over with his car to keep an armed suspect from getting to a populated area and it looked bad but the officer could use deadly force and the suspect was armed with a rifle.  The officer was deemed justified and in the end the suspect lived.

Do I think that the case was covered up for political reasons?  Absolutely.  But I don’t believe Officer Van Dyke was involved in the cover-up although who knows maybe he was and it was never proven.

I do know a few things though and this is what bothers me.  Laquan McDonald, regardless of age or troubled life, was threatening at least one person with a deadly weapon prior to encountering police and was also burglarizing trucks.  He was not compliant when police on numerous occasions had tried to place him under arrest and was at times running away and at times swinging the deadly weapon back and forth and slashing police vehicle tires and windshields.  He was not acting the way a reasonable person would act and later it was shown that he was under the influence of PCP but it doesn’t matter because police were not aware of that fact at the time of the encounter.

Would I have shot at Laquan McDonald in the same situation?  Maybe not, probably not, but I wasn’t there.  What I do believe is that according to the State Statute covering a peace officer’s use of force he was acting within that statute and I have a feeling that being thrown under the bus by your employer and becoming a scapegoat because of a pretty evident cover up for political reasons is going to have a chilling effect on the way current Chicago police officers do their jobs and proactive policing may be a thing of the past.  Unfortunately, that will embolden those who have no regard for the law and have a damaging effect on the vast majority of law-abiding citizens who live in the city of Chicago.

I am thankful to God that the city did not erupt into violence and I will be saying a prayer tonight for the family of Laquan McDonald whose life ended entirely too soon regardless of his demons or issues and I would also like to say a prayer for Jason Van Dyke and his family because but through the grace of God, I could be sitting where he is sitting now.  To my brothers in law enforcement and other first responders, I pray that you stay safe and cherish the time with your families.

 

 

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