'I was a great police officer,' says Chicago cop charged with murder in shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald

A Chicago police officer charged with murder in shooting of teen speaks out.

August 29, 2018, 9:07 PM

A white Chicago police officer scheduled to go on trial next week on a murder charge stemming from the 2014 fatal shooting of a 17-year-old African-American boy is speaking out, saying, "I think I was a great police officer" and that he's not a racist.

Officer Jason Van Dyke, 40, told the Chicago Tribune that "I pray every day" for the family of Laquan McDonald, the teen he shot 16 times during a confrontation on Oct. 20, 2014.

"I offer up a rosary every day," Van Dyke told the newspaper in the exclusive 40-minute interview at his lawyer's office in Chicago.

The Tribune called the interview "tightly controlled by his attorneys and the public relations strategist hired by his defense team." Van Dyke's lawyers asked for questions ahead of the interview and during the interview he was "[o]ccasionally looking at handwritten notes," the newspaper noted.

PHOTO: In this Aug. 28, 2018 photo, Jason Van Dyke speaks at his lawyer's office in Chicago.
In this Aug. 28, 2018 photo, Jason Van Dyke speaks at his lawyer's office in Chicago.
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune via AP

While he declined on the advice of his lawyer to discuss details of the shooting, he did say it was the first time he had fired his gun in the line of duty during his more than 12 years as a member of the Chicago Police Department, working in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods of the city.

"Any loss of life was extremely difficult," Van Dyke said. "It's something you try to mentally prepare yourself for just in case. ... You don't ever want to shoot your gun. It doesn't matter if it's to put down a stray animal or something like that. Nobody wants to shoot their gun. I never would have fired my gun if I didn't think my life was in jeopardy or another citizen's life was. It's something you have to live with forever."

Jury selection in Van Dyke's murder trial is scheduled to begin next week.

McDonald was spotted walking down a street holding a knife, according to police. Officers followed him and called for back up, officials said.

PHOTO: In this Aug. 28, 2018 photo, Jason Van Dyke poses at his lawyer's office in Chicago.
In this Aug. 28, 2018 photo, Jason Van Dyke poses at his lawyer's office in Chicago.
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune via AP

Van Dyke and his partner heard the radio dispatch and raced to the scene, officials said. Van Dyke opened fire on McDonald six seconds after he exited his patrol car, officials said.

He was the only police officer at the scene to fire his gun.

In a written report of the shooting he submitted, Van Dyke claimed McDonald was attacking him with a knife when he opened fire, emptying his gun. But a police dashcam video contradicted his account of the shooting, officials said.

Van Dyke lawyers contend the dashcam video does not include sound and doesn't show the shooting from Van Dyke's vantage point.

Van Dyke was arrested in November 2015, on the same day the dashcam video was publicly released. He was suspended from the police force without pay but remains a member of the department.

PHOTO: In this still image taken from a police vehicle dash camera released by the Chicago Police Department on November 24, 2015 ,  Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke is shown shooting Laquan McDonald on October 20, 2014  in Chicago, Ill.
In this still image taken from a police vehicle dash camera released by the Chicago Police Department on November 24, 2015 , Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke is shown shooting Laquan McDonald on October 20, 2014 in Chicago, Ill.
Chicago Police Department via Getty Images

The city of Chicago subsequently approved a $5 million settlement to the McDonald family, who did not file a lawsuit.

Van Dyke defended himself against critics who have called him a racist.

"Everyone wants to be part of the bandwagon of hatred," Van Dyke said. "Anyone who knows me, knows me personally, knows ... that I'm not a racist. That's a great false narrative. ... It's just slander.

"I think I was a great police officer," he said. "I always made efforts to treat everybody fairly and with respect and the way I wanted my own family to be treated."

The case became a political crisis for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who fired the former superintendent of police and hired Eddie Johnson as interim superintendent in the aftermath of the shooting that sparked protests nationwide.

"I think there's been a lot of external political pressures," said Van Dyke, who has been working as a janitor at the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police lodge. "It just seems like politics has been involved with this since the beginning."

PHOTO: Jason Van Dyke approaches the bench as his case is called on Nov. 2, 2016, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, Ill.
Jason Van Dyke approaches the bench as his case is called on Nov. 2, 2016, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, Ill.
Nancy Stone/ Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Three other officers have been charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the case for allegedly attempting to prevent or shape the independent criminal investigation into McDonald's shooting. The indicted officers await separate trials.

As he prepares to go on trial, Van Dyke said he is worried about the verdict.

"Of course, I'm extremely nervous," Van Dyke told the Tribune. "I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer."

The Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald's great uncle, said Van Dyke's interview seemed disingenuous.

"I don't know the man," Hunter told the Tribune. "Is he really praying or is he just saying what he thinks you want to hear? They’re trying to write a narrative. They're trying to influence the jury. I'm not mad or surprised because it's just legal maneuvers. If I were writing the script for him, I would have him say exactly what he's saying."

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