Professor Acevedo Op-Ed: Is there a magic bullet to reduce police misconduct?

As published by Chicago Tribune

Imagine if the first bullet in a cop’s chamber were a blank bullet. Would this approach save lives?

What if a police department adopted this approach as standard procedure. Or, better yet, if legislation mandated this requirement for state and local police departments. Would it help save lives?

Police in Britain, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand typically do not carry weapons at all when they are patrolling the streets. Surely, crimes in those countries are no less threatening than what we experience in the U.S.

The idea is not to ban guns from the police departments here. Rather, it is to require that the first bullet in the chamber not be a live bullet.

Nonbelievers will say the hazards of entering a violent situation require an immediate and forceful response. True. They will say police officers often must make split-second decisions. True again. And they will say that “the bad guys” carry guns. True once more. However, we must allow police the opportunity to assess a situation and decide if a nonlethal approach is preferable. The knowledge that the first bullet in the chamber is a blank could provide that opportunity. If a police officer needs a live round, the second bullet stands ready.

The benefit of this approach outweighs the burden. The list of lives lost as a result of police conduct, or misconduct, is too great to ignore.

For example, Rumain Brisbon was shot by police in Phoenix after police misidentified his medicine bottle for a gun. He left behind four children. Akai Gurley was shot in a public housing stairwell by a police officer in New York. Gurley did not pose a threat, and in a statement New York police Commissioner William Bratton called him “a total innocent.” Or take the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot by the police in Cleveland. Tamir was holding a BB gun. Advance warning most likely would have prevented his death. Unfortunately, there are many other victims, most notably, 18-year-old Michael Brown who was shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., because he looked “like a demon.”

Which brings me to the shooting death by a Chicago police officer of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, captured on a police video that was released to the public Tuesday because of a judge’s order. There are many questions concerning the events leading to his death on Oct. 20, 2014, as well as the events that followed.

McDonald’s death is a tragedy on many levels. First, it highlights the failure of the Chicago Police Department to respond to a conflict situation in a professional and humane manner. There was simply no reason for the police officer, Jason Van Dyke, to shoot.

The video shows McDonald walking away from not one police officer, but several. McDonald did not have a gun in his hand. Rather, he had knife with a 3-inch blade. A police Taser or a police dog might have been an appropriate response in this case. Our police need to be fully trained to de-escalate situations, not escalate them.

Second, McDonald’s death highlights the need for transparency and accountability. Why did it take a judge’s order to prompt Mayor Rahm Emanuel, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy into action? No doubt Cook County Circuit Judge Franklin Valderrama carefully weighed the decision to release the video. His decision carries on the tradition of transparency made famous by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ statement, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”

Finally, McDonald’s death highlights a breach of the public trust by our political leadership. Why did Alvarez wait so long to charge Van Dyke? Her obligation is to protect the citizens of Cook County, not the Chicago Police Department. Why did Emanuel fail to insist on transparency in the midst of his mayoral campaign last spring? This failure calls into question his priorities for Chicagoans. And why is McCarthy still leading the Chicago Police Department when his policies continue to be a complete and utter failure?

There is something troubling about charging Van Dyke with first-degree murder. The charge may pacify the masses into the false belief that he will face the scales of justice. The danger, however, is that the scales have been tipped by overcharging Van Dyke. For a first-degree murder conviction, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Van Dyke intended to kill or do great bodily harm to McDonald. This sets up a perfect defense for Van Dyke, namely that he did not intend to kill or do great bodily harm. If just one juror accepts this defense, Van Dyke will be found not guilty and walk free.

An independent federal investigation is needed — and should be led by an investigator who is free from political influence and who has the power to investigate the mayor’s office, the state’s attorney’s office and the police department.

Caught in the middle of all of these cases involving police conduct are the decent officers from all walks of life who put their lives on the line to earn an honest living.

But Chicago will not begin to heal until there is accountability and transparency. If there is to be a silver lining in the death of Laquan McDonald, let it be shown through the power of the people who seek change and justice for all.

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