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White police officer charged with murdering teen in US

Laquan McDonald
Laquan McDonald

A white Chicago police officer who shot a black teenager 16 times last year was charged with murder, hours before the city released a video of the killing that many people fear could spark unrest.

City officials and community leaders have been bracing for the release of the dashboard-camera video, fearing the kind of unrest that occurred in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, after young black men were killed by police or died in police custody.

A judge ordered that the recording be made public. Moments before the footage was released, the mayor and the police chief appealed for calm.

"People have a right to be angry. People have a right to protest. People have a right to free speech. But they do not have a right to ... criminal acts," Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said.

The fears of unrest stem from long-standing tensions between Chicago police and its minority communities, partly due to the department's reputation for brutality, particularly involving blacks.

The relevant portion of the video runs for less than 40 seconds and has no audio.

Laquan McDonald, 17, swings into view on a four-lane street where police vehicles are stopped in the middle of the roadway.

As he jogs down the street, he appears to pull up his pants and then slows to a brisk walk, veering away from two officers who are emerging from a vehicle and drawing their guns.

Almost immediately, one of the officers appears to fire from close range. Laquan spins around and crumples to the pavement. The second officer simultaneously lowers his weapon.

The car with the camera continues to roll forward until the officers are out of the frame. Then the teenager can be seen lying on the pavement, moving occasionally. At least two small puffs of smoke can be seen coming off his body as the officer continues firing.

In the final moments, an officer can be seen kicking something out of the youth's hands.

Police have said he had a knife. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said that a 3in knife with its blade folded into the handle was recovered from the scene.

Shortly after the video's release, protesters began marching through streets. Several hundred people blocked traffic on the near West Side. Some circled police cars and chanted: "Sixteen shots."

"I'm so hurt and so angry," said Jedidiah Brown, a South Side activist and pastor who had just seen the video. "I can feel pain through my body."

Protesters were accompanied by many police officers, and no violence was immediately reported.

City officials spent months arguing that the footage could not be made public until the conclusion of several investigations. After the judge's order, the investigation was quickly wrapped up and a charge announced.

Ms Alvarez defended the 13 months it took to charge officer Jason Van Dyke with first-degree murder.

She said cases involving police officers present "highly complex" legal issues and she would rather take the time to get it right than "rush to judgment".

Ms Alvarez said: "It is graphic. It is violent. It is chilling. To watch a 17-year-old young man die in such a violent manner is deeply disturbing. I have absolutely no doubt that this video will tear at the hearts of all Chicagoans."

But she insisted she made a decision "weeks ago" to charge Van Dyke and the video's ordered release did not influence that.

"This is a panicky reaction to an institutional crisis within the criminal-justice system," said the Rev Jesse Jackson, a leading civil rights activist, who said he hoped to see "massive" but peaceful demonstrations.

A post-mortem report said Laquan was shot at least twice in his back. It also said PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, was found in his system.

At the time of his death, police were responding to complaints about someone breaking into cars and stealing radios.

Van Dyke, who was denied bond, was the only officer of the several who were on the scene to open fire.

Ms Alvarez said the officer emptied his 9mm pistol of all 16 rounds and that he was on the scene for just 30 seconds before he started shooting.

She said he opened fire just six seconds after getting out of his vehicle and kept firing even though the teenager dropped to the ground after the initial shots.

Van Dyke's lawyer, Dan Herbert, maintains his client feared for his life and acted lawfully and that the video does not tell the whole story.

Van Dyke, though stripped of his police powers, has been assigned to desk duty since the shooting.