Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A judge will soon decide if a gruesome video of the police shooting of a Chicago 17-year-old should be made public. To what end?
On October 20, 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, an African American, was shot 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. McDonald died from the bullets, which entered his chest, back, neck, arms, and head. This was just months after black teen Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, and after the ensuing riots that inflamed the city. The details on McDonald’s death are murky in terms of why the officer shot and killed him, amounting largely to a “police (union)-said, witness said” argument. Follow the story trail at the Chicago Tribune to get the full scoop.
Whatever the disputes are over why Van Dyke fired and whether he was justified in doing so, the video from a nearby police car’s dashcam may clear them up. As could a court trial, but that won’t happen because the city of Chicago settled with McDonald’s family for $5 million before anyone sued. So all that’s left for resolution on what happened that October night last year is the video. And the evidence on it must be pretty conclusive, because Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel does not want the public to see it.
Part of the reason for that is that there is an ongoing FBI investigation into the matter. But if the video absolved Van Dyke or answered any questions in his favor, the city probably would have released the video by now. As the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board wrote earlier this year:
Federal prosecutors confirmed they are investigating, along with the Cook County state's attorney. If charges are filed, a conviction would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a higher burden than for a civil case.
Releasing the video wouldn't compromise that case.
The camera simply recorded the events that played out in front of the cruiser's windshield—details that ought to be part of the narrative supplied to the public.
University of Chicago Law professor Craig Futterman called on the police to publicize the video, telling the Trib:
“When there are such fractured relationships between police and particularly African-American communities in Chicago, the right thing to do as a matter of policy … is to take the lead, to be a leader and not a follower in terms of transparency. … Keep the public informed and show also that, ‘hey, folks, you can trust our investigations, you can look and see them.’”
A freelance journalist has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to bring the video to light. Trib reporter John Kass wrote this week that the city needs to make that happen, even if the horrific details captured in the video end up triggering Ferguson-like unrest. Writes Kass:
Keeping the video secret serves the politics of City Hall. Releasing it serves the interests of activists and police critics who will make McDonald a martyr, and perhaps fashion him into a political club to hammer police and the mayor. But the people deserve to see what happened. And once they see it, then the people can decide what to do about it. It's their city.
Kass reports a more measured plea from Danny Solis, an alderman in Chicago’s Lower West Side: "My position is, if it doesn't serve a purpose to help heal, or make things better for our people, I suggest caution.”
The public has a right to know what was done on public streets by a taxpayer-funded officer of the law. But is it always a good idea to let the public know everything? If the video is certain to cause riots, as Kass seems to feverishly believe, then might it cause more harm than good? These are questions asked more regularly as cities are increasingly acquiring body cameras for their police departments. Some mayors and police chiefs are adopting body cams only with the caveat that the videos they record are generally not offered to the public.
Again, part of this is because releasing such video prematurely could upset criminal investigations. But many in the press and public wonder what the point is of having police cams if no one can see the footage. Police don’t want their videos to go public because they believe it causes a chilling effect on police operations. Many in the public, meanwhile, want the police to chill.
A video recorded by a police officer in New Orleans last year helped put a cop in prison for shooting and killing an unarmed African American—a rare punishment for police in such circumstances. The video was recorded without his police department’s authorization, and his supervisors went well out of their way to keep that video suppressed, ultimately unsuccessfully. That situation is clear evidence that recording police activity is important.
The Conference on Civil and Human Rights recently released a set of “civil rights principles” for how police body cams should be deployed. A pertinent entry among those principles for this issue goes:
Make footage available to promote accountability with appropriate privacy safeguards in place. At a minimum: (1) footage that captures police use of force should be made available to the public and press upon request, and (2) upon request, footage should be made available in a timely manner to any filmed subject seeking to file a complaint, to criminal defendants, and to the next-of-kin of anyone whose death is related to the events captured on video. Departments must consider individual privacy concerns before making footage available to broad audiences.
The principles don’t say that departments should also consider whether releasing such videos could also stir violence, per Chicago alderman Solis’s concerns. Once videos come out, they don’t follow a controlled path. They hit social media feeds, inciting both the best and worst in people. A constant loop of images on Facebook of a black teenager’s body being cut down in a barrage of bullets will certainly trigger depression and anxiety, as previous and increasingly common images have.
The U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once said that, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
Sunlight also causes cancer, though. It’s worth examining how cities in these kinds of situations can satisfy the public’s right to know while managing potential violent metastasis. But of course, the best way to calm nerves is for police to not do things they’d be ashamed of if they were subject to public exposure.