With the high-profile murder trial of Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dykedrawing to a rapid close, officials and businesses from downtown to the city’s neighborhood streets are shifting into high gear to prepare for the jury’s decision.
Closing arguments in the trial for the 2014 on-duty fatal shooting of African-American teenager Laquan McDonald are scheduled Thursday, after which the jury will begin deciding Van Dyke’s fate.
Outrage over McDonald’s death led to sustained street protests in late 2015 after a Cook County judge forced the city to release footage of the shooting, which showed Van Dyke firing 16 times at McDonald, who was carrying a knife and refusing police orders to stop as he appeared to be walking away.
Authorities are preparing for protests once again downtown and along Michigan Avenue after the verdict is returned. Organizers have been meeting all summer to discuss strategy for what they are hoping will be peaceful gatherings focusing on an economic shutdown of the city.
But the trial of Van Dyke has tapped into decades of mistreatment by police in some of the city’s communities of color, leaving open the possibility that tensions could rise.
The Police Department has written a lengthy general order for officers — which it has not released — and is prepared to cancel days off for the roughly 13,000-strong department if widespread protests occur. Their usual 8 1/2-hour shifts will be extended to 12 hours starting Thursday.
Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told the Tribune last week that officers who respond will be wearing regular uniforms and will be following protest events, allowing peaceful demonstrations to unfold. Johnson said the public will not see officers deployed in military-style clothing or riot gear unless the need arises. Such equipment will be readily available, and he stressed that the department will be ready to respond as necessary.
“We are prepared to escalate up if the need arises,” he said. “We have the ability to ramp up our deployments or take them back down as the need requires.”
Johnson said the department was not expecting any problems, based on what authorities were hearing. “Everyone understands this is our city and we all have a responsibility to ensure our city is safe.”
Downtown business associations also have been planning for the verdict. The Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago issued an emergency preparedness alert related to the trial on Sept. 21.
The alert advised members to expect a two-hour notice before the verdict is released, stressing the importance of having a “preparedness and response plan in place.” The alert noted how protests to date had been peaceful but that “experience in other cities has shown that protests can be infiltrated by instigators who deliberately want to ignite a confrontation.”
The Magnificent Mile Association, in an emailed statement, said all members had been provided with a “security preparedness bulletin” from Chicago police.
“We have outlined and distributed best practices for how and when to alert authorities,” the statement from association Chairman Rick Simon read. “And established a communications system for members to stay in touch with one another and share safety and security updates.”
If the jury deliberates through the weekend, authorities are prepared for the potential it have an impact on the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, which is expected to bring more than 45,000 runners to the race that kicks off and finishes downtown.
Marathon spokeswoman Cindy Hamilton said race officials have been in contact with police throughout planning for the event. In addition to Chicago police, federal agencies provide support to the race and the marathon also uses private security firms.
“Every year we work really closely with our partners from the city to federal partners to look at current conditions and make sure we are prepared,” Hamilton said. “It just comes from the collaboration.”
When asked Tuesday about the potential for a Van Dyke verdict and Chicago Marathon coinciding, Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the city’s plan “ensures we have the ability to marshal the appropriate staff,” which could range from calling up specialized units to deploying the entire department.
“We knew all these things were coming,” Guglielmi said. “We knew that the timing of this could hit on the week of the marathon.”
Meanwhile, efforts have been made across the city to shore up support in neighborhoods as well.
“It is our responsibility to protect the entire city,” Johnson said.
Department officials said commanders in the 22 districts have been encouraged to meet directly with community organizations and businesses to talk about potential areas where a conflict could break out.
“We do want them to express their thoughts and their beliefs and we are willing to protect them, but we want them to do it peacefully,” said Deputy Chief Dwayne Betts. “Nobody in the city would want to see any ruckus in the city or the communities.”
Meanwhile, a standing group of about 15 private and public organizations, which includes city officials and already meets biweekly around reducing Chicago gun violence, has encouraged members to prepare for the verdict. The groups, which work directly with many young men swept up in Chicago’s violence, have encouraged peace circles in schools and impromptu conversations on city blocks.
Jen Keeling, chair of the meeting on behalf of the organization Chicago CRED, said so far she is aware of about a half-dozen schools that have committed to peace circles or student discussions. Community organizations also are doing outreach, she said. The goal is to provide not only support at what might be a difficult time for residents who feel disconnected from police but also an opportunity to promote peaceful reactions.
“In order to create safe spaces, foster open dialogue, and promote peace, we encourage local leaders to open their doors,” Keeling said in an emailed statement.
Separately, activist Will Calloway has held several community meetings over the summer to solidify a peaceful approach to protesting. The latest was held this week at Quinn Chapel AME Church at 2401 S. Wabash Ave., where about 100 people gathered, said the Rev. James Moody. “We are also working to make sure we can provide positive and safe and peaceful ways to people to express themselves.”
“There is a real desire for there to be a just verdict in the case of Jason Van Dyke,” Moody continued, saying that Van Dyke fired “16 shots to a young man’s body who was actually walking away from him.”
“We need to connect with people who are feeling disenfranchised, show them where they can express themselves so they are not aimlessly attempting to do that on their own. We act angry but we very often are feeling abandoned,” Moody said. “What we are feeling is that the system doesn’t include me.”