Release of Chicago Police Videos Marks Seismic Shift in Secrecy
By Annie Sweeney, Jeremy Gorner and Jason Meisner
The Emanuel administration's release of massive amounts of evidence in nearly 90 pending investigations of police shootings and other incidents marked a watershed moment for a city that fought for decades to keep videos in excessive force cases hidden from the public.
The document dump on Friday came more than six months after video of a Chicago police officer shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times changed the landscape for the embattled Police Department.
More than half of the cases still under investigation by the city's police oversight agency included dashcam videos, surveillance footage and audio. A few involved familiar cases because of lawsuits or criminal charges, but most were publicly unknown and offered a glimpse at how routine police work can suddenly escalate into violence.
In one, officers shoot an unruly man on a street as he paces and threatens them. In another chaotic scene, residents scream at responding officers on a dark street before one appears to punch a man. Inside a River North Portillo's, an off-duty officer is seen landing hard punches on a Canadian tourist. The videos go inside lockups, showing disturbing images of officers who appear to grab arrestees by the throat or shove them into doorways.
One video shot on a cellphone includes the incredulous play-by-play commentary from residents watching from an apartment as police shoot a citizen.
The rollout marks the official start of a new policy to release video of shootings by police within 60 days of most incidents -- an unprecedented shift toward transparency that even longtime critics of the secrecy of the Police Department have praised as an important step.
"I think this is a big thing," said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who has studied police misconduct. "We are experiencing a sea change, and lots of credit should go around for that."
The city has been wrestling for weeks with myriad issues surrounding the release of so much information. The Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates alleged abuses by police, designed a user-friendly website for the public at www.iprachicago.org, making information searchable by incident date, type of case and complainant's name.
Meanwhile, there were human issues to consider. Families whose loved ones may appear on the videos have been called in and consulted. On Thursday, the city also met with police union representatives to try to ease any pushback from the rank-and-file force. But that failed miserably.
Dean Angelo Sr., president of the Fraternal Order of Police, criticized the city for giving the union less than 24 hours' notice in advance of the unprecedented release. He also blasted posting details of investigations still pending, saying it raised privacy and safety concerns, and expressed concern that the identities of officers who work in sensitive, undercover roles could be exposed.
Officers "are just disgusted," he said Friday in a telephone interview. "A lot of them are being put in a bad light. It's like another layer of scrutiny, another layer of public exposure."
The new policy appears to make Chicago the largest city in the nation to have any kind of official rules for releasing videos of police excessive force incidents. Experts on police reform say the kind of transparency being tested in Chicago is a crucial component to the overall issue of use of force, which has risen to the forefront of the national consciousness after a string of highly publicized incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Chicago and elsewhere.
The public's ability to view the videos, though possibly troubling and tough for families and officers, could be a game-changer for police departments nationwide, particularly in Chicago, said Jonathan Smith, the former head of special litigation at the U.S. Department of Justice.
"Because of the withholding of the video around the (McDonald) shooting, Chicago has a huge credibility problem, and it wasn't like there was a tremendous amount of support or community confidence before," said Smith, who oversaw 18 federal investigations into law enforcement agencies, including Ferguson and New Orleans.
"I think that is going to be a huge, important step to let people see what happens, and it will begin to help build back some of that community trust," Smith said. "There won't be a sense that the city is hiding anything."
One of the cases that's going up on the site is the June 2011 fatal shooting of unarmed Flint Farmer, who was killed as he lay prone on the ground by an officer who claimed to have mistaken Farmer's cellphone for a gun. The shooting was one of three involving the officer, Gildardo Sierra, in a six-month period that year and has been highlighted in a series of reports by the Tribune.
Farmer's father, Emmett, said Thursday that IPRA recently reached out to him about the transparency push and asked him to come in to review the evidence that was being made public in his son's case. Farmer said he watched the video three times at IPRA's offices and also listened to a 911 dispatch that captured the police response.
Farmer said watching it again wasn't easy. He expects it will be especially difficult for other families who are just now learning that videos showing their loved ones getting into dangerous confrontations with police are being posted for public consumption.
"It's always painful to relive that over again," Farmer said in a telephone interview. "But I think it's necessary to be out in public for everyone to see again, bring back attention to it."
For years, the city's policy had been to withhold videos of Chicago police-involved shootings and other alleged use-of-force abuses if they were part of any investigation, whether it was a criminal probe of officer wrongdoing or merely a disciplinary proceeding. If a case was charged or an officer was sued, the city battled in court to keep videos hidden by seeking a protective order from a judge barring the release of the evidence.
When a video did surface, it typically came from a media leak or a lawyer whose client was suing the city and decided to go public.
In 2007, for example, Chicago experienced its first viral video of an officer out of control when footage of off-duty Officer Anthony Abbate drunkenly beating bartender Karolina Obrycka made headlines throughout the world.
The video might never have been seen if the owner of the bar hadn't made an extra copy before turning over the hard drive to police. Weeks later, convinced that nothing was being done by the Police Department to investigate the incident, the owner gave the copy to a lawyer, who sent it to media outlets.
The lawyer, Terry Ekl, told the Tribune in a recent interview the video was powerful and undeniable evidence that defeated the efforts of the police to protect Abbate and keep the beating out of the public eye.
"If we don't have a video, Anthony Abbate is a police officer today," Ekl said. "There is no question in my mind it would have been completely spun against Karolina, and Abbate would have had made all kinds of statements that would be completely false."
The Abbate scandal led to months of embarrassing headlines and the resignation of then-police Superintendent Phil Cline. In a landmark verdict in 2012, a federal jury awarded Obrycka $850,000 and found that a widespread code of silence had emboldened Abbate to beat her because he knew he would not be punished.
In a controversial move after the verdict, the city tried to cut a deal with the bartender, offering to pay her the settlement immediately if she agreed to join in asking the court to vacate the judgment. But a federal judge blocked the deal.
Still, six years after the Abbate incident, the aftermath of the McDonald shooting played out like so many other police-involved incidents had before.
On the night of the October 2014 shooting, a police union spokesman claimed Officer Jason Van Dyke had fired in fear for his life after McDonald lunged at him and his fellow officers with a knife.
In the months that followed, the Police Department rejected several Freedom of Information Act requests for the police dashcam video filed by news outlets, including the Tribune. Independent journalist Brandon Smith filed a lawsuit in summer 2015, accusing the department of violating the state's open records law. As usual, the city fought the lawsuit tooth and nail.
Then, in a stunning ruling in November 2015, Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama rejected the city's arguments that the video was exempt from the state's open records law because of an ongoing investigation.
Within days, the city released the McDonald video just hours after Van Dyke became the first Chicago police officer in decades to be charged with murder in an on-duty incident.
The 13-month delay in releasing the video of McDonald's shooting became a rallying cry for critics of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose administration signed off on a $5 million settlement with the teen's family before a lawsuit was even filed. Emanuel was re-elected to a second term months before the video eventually went public, leading to accusations of a cover-up and calls for Emanuel's resignation.
Amid the fallout, Emanuel was forced to welcome a U.S. Justice Department investigation into police use-of-force practices.
More fuel was added to the fire weeks later when police officers' reports on the incident were released and showed their accounts clashed with the video of McDonald moving away from officers when he was shot.
Amid the fallout, Emanuel appointed a Police Accountability Task Force to look at possible reforms. In February, based on recommendations by the task force, the mayor announced the plan to release audio and video recordings and police reports within 60 days of shootings, deaths in police custody or other major uses of force by officers.
The policy allows law enforcement agencies to seek an additional 30-day delay by stating in a public filing the reasons under state law the video should stay hidden.
According to the task force report released in April, the policy change reflects that the citizens of Chicago "have an undeniable, and in some cases paramount, interest in being informed, in a timely fashion and based on the most accurate information possible, about how their police force conducts its business, especially where the use of force by the police results in the death of, or great bodily harm to, a civilian."
Despite Friday's mass release of records, police disclosure remains a controversial issue in Chicago.
The FOP has sued the city and the Police Department to block the release of decades of records of complaints against officers under Freedom of Information requests filed by the Tribune and other media. The lawsuit cites the union's contract and seeks an order to expunge any complaint records more than four years old. While the case works its way through the courts, records more than four years old are off-limits to news organizations and the public under a court order.
In addition, journalists continue to complain about difficulty obtaining police records. The Tribune sued the Police Department in March, alleging that it violated open records laws by failing to produce former Superintendent Garry McCarthy's emails. Most of those emails have still not been turned over.
Smith, the former Justice Department official who now heads the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said while Chicago's release is an important step, there is more that could be done to achieve true transparency.
"Video is going to be one perspective and one point of view, and the city is going to have to do other things that places those videos in context," he said. "I think there is a risk here in Chicago and everywhere else that somehow a video will answer all the questions. ... In many cases understanding what the video means is going to require more, and the city is going to have to release more."
Some civil rights attorneys have complained the two- to three-month waiting period is still too long. They noted that other jurisdictions have posted video of potentially controversial incidents within days, and they said there is little reason video from police shootings shouldn't be posted within 48 hours. Releasing video quickly, civil rights lawyers argued, can replace speculation with hard evidence.
"(Video) protects the truth. If the police haven't done anything wrong, it corroborates that," Jon Loevy, a lawyer whose firm helped push the release of the McDonald shooting video, told the Tribune when the policy was announced in February.
Futterman, the University of Chicago law professor, said he would eventually like to see videos released within 48 hours, barring certain legal issues.
"Obviously, you don't want to have the video influence people (whom) law enforcement hasn't talked to yet," Futterman said. "But if you haven't talked to them by 48 hours, they've had plenty of time to talk to each other. You're not going to lose anything in the investigation by making the video public."
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