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Chicago police releases videos for transparency: Is that enough?

In response to calls for police accountability, Mayor Emanuel's administration has released more than 100 audio and video files of incidents showing police force.

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    Sharon Fairley, chief administrator of the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA) for the city of Chicago, speaks at a news conference in March. On Friday, IPRA released videos, audio recordings, and reports from about 100 Chicago Police officer-involved shootings to the public. The materials pertain to still-open investigations.
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The Chicago Police Department made available online Friday a trove of video footage and audio clips of open cases that show the use of force and firearms by its officers. The document dump is the latest effort by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration to regain public trust through transparency as the city reels from record-high violence and tensions between the police and the black community continue to escalate.

The effort comes partly in response to community members demanding "a fully independent civilian police accountability council," as The Christian Science Monitor reported in April

The Police Accountability Task Force formed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in December released its final report [in April], and its message suggests that [members of the] black community have been heard.

The Chicago Police Department 'cannot begin to build trust, repair what is broken and tattered unless – from the top leadership on down – it faces these hard truths, acknowledges what it has done at the individual and institutional levels and earnestly reaches out with respect,' the report says."

But will the release of the nearly 100 audio and video files by Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which investigates police misconduct, advance the mission of greater transparency, or simply add to public frustration and dissatisfaction with the police force?

The online archive appears to be a mixed bag of incidents ranging from "firearm discharge" to "incident in police custody." But the first file listed is a juvenile case, which means its contents are sealed by the courts. While other files are downloadable, some audio files are tagged as being "redacted" or censored. 

Data "searchable by names and information in 911 calls and documents has been redacted to protect anything that would identify witnesses, bystanders and HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] information," says police department spokeswoman Mia Sissac. 

Nonetheless, some are seeing it as a sign of progress.

The new public records are "a real step toward transparency," Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "It's imperfect, but it provides separate files organized by incident that are capable of download."

The site also has the ability to search by complaint number or by plaintiff. "Ideally, more basic information would be provided in the [index] list, including the location of incident, but this is an impressive effort," he says.

Dr. Futterman played a key role in forcing the city to release the October 2014 dashcam video showing the death of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times at close range by Officer Jason Van Dyke. As a result, Officer Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder in November 2015.

With the release of the files, "the police have the opportunity to end decades of secrecy and denial," says Futterman. "But that won't happen if the documents are not in a user-friendly format, in context, downloadable and easily searchable." The cases are instead filed by numbers that, according to Futterman, are not readily available to the general public.

Still, it's an unprecedented move for the city, some say, even though the filing system may be difficult to crack by the average user. 

"This is a significant change in the way these documents and videos have been treated," Ed Yohnka, director of communications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "The goal ought to be to make them as transparent as possible. You shouldn't need a tech expert to figure out how to get through them."

No matter what format the materials take, however, Futterman says that Chicago is at least moving in a better direction to regain public trust than police in other states. How the Chicago public interacts with the files could trigger a sea change in police relations not only locally, but nationally.

That couldn't come at a better time for the battered city.

"The city, Chicago, is in a crisis in terms of the relationship between the community and the police department," Mr. Yohnka says, and 69 people were hit by gunfire in downtown areas over the Memorial Day weekend.

"We need to move beyond. We need to find more transparency, not less," Yohnka says. "We need to engage people in the discussion in how we move forward, not just careen from crisis to crisis."

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