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Legal experts fear Chicago's slow police reforms could lead to a Tyre Nichols incident 8 years after Laquan McDonald firestorm

William Lee, Madeline Buckley and Gregory Pratt, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO — The video-recorded killing of Tyre Nichols that led to charges against police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, stirred echoes in Chicago, where eight years ago another recorded death similarly sent shock waves across the nation and spurred public demand for police reform.

In the case of Laquan McDonald, a teenager fatally shot by a uniformed Chicago police officer in October 2014, release of graphic video provoked public outrage and immediate criminal charges against the officer, Jason Van Dyke, reigniting the embers of resentment in Chicago and calls for accountability against police.

The McDonald case led to years of reform efforts, including the departmentwide rollout of body-worn cameras and a 2019 federal consent decree mandating reforms in Chicago police training, use of force, data management and other areas. But lawyers who have been involved in the consent decree say slow reform efforts create an environment similar to the one that led to Nichols’ death in Memphis.

Nichols, a 29-year-old African American who worked for FedEx and was the father of a 4-year-old son, was dragged from his car by police officers from Memphis’ “Scorpion” street crime unit for alleged reckless driving. Video showed he was held down, kicked, punched and tased. Five officers were charged with murder. Two other Memphis officers were relieved of duty and three fire department workers who responded to the scene were fired, according to the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis.

Officials in Memphis and across the country were fearful that releasing video of Nichols’ beating death would serve as a flashpoint to civil unrest as McDonald’s and George Floyd’s deaths had been, despite Nichols’ alleged attackers also being African American.

When the Chicago consent decree was being drafted, community groups pushed for inclusion of requirements that would limit police power to engage with people suspected of minor and nonviolent criminal offenses because of the propensity for such interactions to needlessly escalate into violence, said Sheila Bedi, a Northwestern University law professor and an attorney who has been involved in litigation over the decree.


The language was ultimately not adopted, she said, though she added that the city could petition the court to modify the consent decree to include such provisions. Without such limits on police, and with the slow pace of complying with the consent decree overall, real reform appears far off, she said.

“What happened in Memphis could easily happen here,” Bedi said.

A common thread between Nichols’ and McDonald’s cases was perception of a cover-up by police to protect their own. In the McDonald case, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 initially provided a statement that described the teen as the aggressor despite police dashcam video evidence that later showed the knife-wielding African American teen backing away as he was shot 16 times by Van Dyke, who is white.

In Memphis, police released a vague statement without any indications of wrongdoing by the officers.


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