Months after a teenager was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer, the city is still refusing to release the dash-cam video of the fatal shooting and didn’t even show it to aldermen Wednesday before they approved a $5 million settlement with the family.
The October 2014 shooting death of Laquon McDonald hasn’t generated the same kind of national attention as other recent high-profile confrontations involving officers. After some, in such places as South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona, video was released that quickly went viral.
In approving a settlement even before McDonald’s family filed a lawsuit, some members of the Chicago City Council disagreed on whether releasing the video could spark the kind of angry protests seen elsewhere. While Danny Solis said making it public could “fan the flames,” fellow Alderman Howard Brookins said fear of demonstrations or riots shouldn’t drive the decision.
“I need this to stop, (and) if you don’t show the video and this continues to happen then we’re still heading down that path,” he said.
Authorities say McDonald was wielding a knife and refused to drop it when officers followed him for several blocks. Another officer who responded to a call for backup fired the fatal shots. That officer, who hasn’t been identified, has been stripped of his police powers and put on desk duty, but no decision has been made on whether he’ll face criminal charges.
Although the city’s attorney had cited the video in arguing for approval of the settlement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel explained Wednesday that police and the FBI are withholding it because it is “central to their investigation.” In a statement, city officials said they were “confident this video will be released at the appropriate time when their investigation is complete.”
But pending investigations haven’t prevented other law enforcement departments from releasing video of contentious and, in many cases, deadly recent encounters involving officers.
Police in North Charleston, South Carolina, released dash-cam video that showed an officer making a routine traffic stop and the suspect running away. That video was released only after a witness’ cellphone video went viral showing the officer later shooting the suspect in the back. The officer has been charged with murder.
A reserve sheriff’s deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was booked on a manslaughter charge this week after video recorded on a sunglass camera was released to the public showing an officer tackling a suspect before a shot rang out.
And on Wednesday, dramatic dash-cam video was made public of a Marana, Arizona, police officer plowing his cruiser into a rifle-toting robbery suspect at high speed. The officer has been cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
Even in Chicago, where the department has been dogged by a reputation for police brutality, security video from a tavern helped convict an off-duty police officer who could be seen in 2007 pummeling a female bartender — an incident that many have speculated wouldn’t have resulted in charges if not for the video.
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who has studied the city’s police department, said videos like the one showing McDonald’s death must be released if the department ever hopes to shed its reputation for excessive force, particularly in black neighborhoods.
“Regaining the trust of the community, particularly the black community, starts with honesty and hiding a potential execution is the kind of thing that destroys trust,” Futterman said.
Policies regarding requests for such video vary sharply from state to state, said Dan Bevarly, interim director of the Missouri-based National Freedom of Information Coalition. In North Carolina, for example, many departments deem body-cam footage “training video” for other officers to watch. As a result, they can claim an exemption from the state’s open-records law and refuse to release it
Video of a fatal police shooting taken from a stun gun’s camera is an important piece of evidence in the pending homicide case against a Pennsylvania police officer, and so far the prosecutor has declined to release it to the public.
Even in states that appear to lean toward opening records, police departments can keep video private, including in Florida, which has claimed about 1,000 exemptions, a total far higher than the number claimed in other states, Bevarly said
In contrast, Bevarly said Seattle’s department has a reputation for openness and often posts video on YouTube “before anyone even asks.”