Chicago release of police video points to wider rise in transparency

In the past, prosecutors often kept videos of police shootings under wraps until trial. But the release of a video in Chicago Thursday shows how public demands – and prosecutors' behavior – are changing.

Alex Wroblewski/Reuters
Protesters demonstrate at City Hall in Chicago, Dec. 31, 2015. Protesters gathered to address recent police-involved shootings.

Chicago had already fought unsuccessfully to keep secret two videos that show police officers killing people under questionable circumstances. But on Wednesday, it dropped its fight against a third video in an attempt, as the city’s top lawyer put it, “to find the right balance” between the public’s right to know and the need to ensure an equitable trial for accused cops.

Chicago’s decision – involving the video of 17-year-old Cedrick Chatman – may signal a shift in how cities and prosecutors handle the release of such footage. It further affirms how significant the public’s demand for more transparency has become.

The national debate over police use of force has been dogged by worries among many, especially minority Americans, that prosecutors may be protecting police under the guise of jurisprudence. But as protests and commentary around high-profile cases have mounted, the need to fill an information vacuum with video evidence has gained supremacy over the idea that prosecutors have wide discretion to withhold evidence until trial.

“There’s a long history of prosecutors [in Chicago and elsewhere] not supporting the release of any evidence because it would taint the jury pool and would eventually change witness statements,” says Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. “But I think police departments have led the way in now saying, ‘I’m going to release it, because it’s more important for the community relations part of our mission to get the truth out there than it is to worry about a prosecution that isn’t going to take place for six or 12 months.’ ”

To critics, early attempts by prosecutors to inform the public seemed arbitrary, sometimes employed in cases where video exonerated police. For example, Suffolk County, Mass., prosecutors last June quickly released video that showed law enforcement did not shoot a man named Usaamah Rahim in the back. Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley said the unusual release came in response to public demands for "transparency and accountability," while containing "rumor, speculation, and inaccurate information."

Yet a more concrete model was emerging at the same time. After decades of police-community conflict, Cincinnati had embarked on a series of reforms, including new rules that forced prosecutors to make evidence in police shootings available within 48 hours – with a small margin of discretion. That policy was tested about a month and a half after the Rahim shooting in Boston, when an unarmed black motorist named Samuel DuBose was shot and killed during a traffic stop. Ray Tensing was charged with murder, given the video evidence from his body camera, which was released nearly a week after the shooting.

The delay in the video’s release had to do with prosecutors trying to determine whether fellow officers had made false corroborating statements.

Chicago's three videos

Chicago has dealt with three videos recently.

Under a court order, the city on Nov. 24 released video showing the fatal shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald in October 2014. Officer Jason Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder in that case.

And on Dec. 7, the city released footage showing the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ronald Johnson – a death that also happened in October 2014. Although the city had fought to keep both videos secret, the Johnson video corroborated the police account that the man was holding a gun when he was killed.

Amid the turmoil over the videos, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced on Dec. 1 a task force on police accountability. The five-member panel was asked to, among other things, review how to release potentially explosive videos and establish greater oversight over officers with multiple complaints against them.

The decision to stop fighting the release of the third video – showing the killing of Cedrick in 2013 – came partly in response to the task force, according to Stephen Patton, the city’s top lawyer.

In December, a judge found the video to be “relevant” to the public debate, and another court hearing was scheduled for Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

“You have everything going on in Chicago right now rolled into one case,” Brian Coffman, a Chatman family attorney, told CNN. “The importance of releasing the video is it helps promote the change in transparency that everybody wants and the mayor has pledged.”

Cedrick, who weighed 133 pounds and stood 5-foot-7, was killed in 2013 after he committed a carjacking and ran when cornered by police cars. Officer Kevin Fry fired four shots, mortally wounding Cedrick. The police officer said he “feared for my life” as well as others’ because Cedrick turned toward them with a black object – possibly a gun – in his hand.

"As these videos will demonstrate ... Officers Fry and [Lou] Toth identified a carjacked vehicle and had reason to believe that the suspect was armed," the officers' lawyer wrote in a statement. "As he was fleeing, the suspect turned toward the officers, with the dark object in his right hand, causing one officer to open fire.”

But the “gun” turned out to be black iPhone cover. And there was a problem beyond that: An internal affairs investigator saw a total of five video angles of the shooting and found that the officers were never in danger and, thus, not justified to use force. He claims now in a lawsuit that he was subsequently fired for refusing to change that ruling. His successor did change it to justified, meaning the two officers remained on the beat.

Mr. Fry does not face criminal charges in the case. He has had 30 previous citizen complaints against him, including 10 that involved allegations of use of force. But none were found credible.

The family has filed a civil lawsuit over the Cedrick’s death. It names the city, the two officers, and the Chicago Police Department as defendants.

Shifting expectations

The video, which was released Thursday, is grainy, and it may yet be inconclusive as to whether the officers did anything wrong.

Still, its release speaks to the increasing expectations of the public.

“If you look at the legal and intellectual history of this issue, not so long ago the working assumption was, like it or not, the rationale that there was an ongoing investigation was sufficient to withhold [evidence],” says Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute, an advocacy journalism organization in Chicago.

The sudden ubiquity of video has fueled this shift in expectations – even when a trial looms. In fact, the widespread publicity of shootings is largely erasing the prosecutorial policy to withhold information until trial.

“We talk about media trials where it goes beyond just a police case, and I can see that’s a valid concern for the police union and police officers involved, and everyone who has to be involved in selecting a jury,” says Frankie Bailey, a criminologist at the University at Albany in New York. “But the theme of police shootings is out there, so it’s hard to get jurors who haven’t thought about this and who don’t have opinions about this. In that way, I don’t know if it’s true any longer that showing a video before a trial makes it more difficult to prosecute fairly.”

Indeed, these attitudes are changing, says Mr. McDevitt at Northeastern. “In the future ... you’re not going to be able to hold [this kind of information] back, because it’s become the way we discuss issues around police use of force – it’s the way we have this conversation now.”

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