After Chicago's Back and Forth, Court Releases Video of Fatal Police Shooting

Videos of another fatal shooting by a white Chicago police officer of a black teenager were released Thursday, after a federal judge's order that blasted the city for abruptly reversing its opposition to making the surveillance footage public.

By Jason Meisner

Videos of another fatal shooting by a white Chicago police officer of a black teenager were released Thursday, after a federal judge's order that blasted the city for abruptly reversing its opposition to making the surveillance footage public.

"I went to a lot of trouble to decide this issue, and then I get this motion last night saying that this is the Age of Enlightenment with the city and we're going to be transparent," U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman said in lifting his protective order on the video evidence. "I think it's irresponsible."

Attorneys for Cedrick Chatman's family have said the videos of his January 2013 shooting contradict statements from police that Chatman had turned and pointed a dark object at police as he ran, prompting Officer Kevin Fry to fire in fear of his life. The object turned out to be a black iPhone box.

With Gettleman signing off on the release, the surveillance footage was made available Thursday afternoon. The videos were obtained from a police surveillance camera as well as cameras outside a convenience store and by South Shore High School.

Both sides agree that, unlike the now-infamous dash-cam video of the Laquan McDonald shooting, the surveillance videos in the Chatman case are low-quality and show only a distant view of the shooting.

However, lawyers for Chatman's family say the footage shows the teen was clearly running away from police and about to turn a corner when he was shot.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration had argued for months that releasing the video could inflame the public and jeopardize a fair trial in the family's lawsuit. In a surprise court filing Wednesday, though, the city dropped its opposition, citing the ongoing work of Emanuel's Task Force on Police Accountability, which is expected to issue recommendations in March on the city's long-standing policy of keeping police shooting videos from the public.

Before Gettleman ruled on the motion Thursday, Jonathan Green, an assistant corporation counsel, told the judge the city is being forced to adapt to "a new world" in which new technologies and the public demand for information on police shootings have taken precedence over the city's longstanding policy to keep evidence in pending cases under wraps.

In the meantime, Green said, the city had decided that in this case "the public's right to disclosure" outweighed concerns over jeopardizing a fair trial.

"We are making a policy change on behalf of the people of Chicago," Green said.

But Gettleman said the city had been disingenuous in its previous arguments that the videos would not be part of any pretrial motions and therefore should be legally barred from being released to the public.

"I am very disturbed about the way this happened," Gettleman said.

After court, Brian Coffman, who represents Chatman's family, said the family was suspicious of the timing of the city's about-face. He said Green's unusual "speech" in court showed how the city was "really trying to control the message."

"The city of Chicago has had not only the last month and a half they've had over the last 2 { years to be transparent in this case," Coffman said.

Coffman noted Emanuel's attorneys had continued to argue strenuously against the video's release in a court filing just a few weeks ago.

"The mayor's only play at this point is to concede," said Coffman, citing mounting pressure from activists and community leaders, some of whom threatened to boycott Emanuel's annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast Friday if he refused to release the video.

In a statement, Corporation Counsel Steve Patton said the city is "working to find the right balance between the public's interest in disclosure and the importance of protecting the integrity of investigations and the judicial process."

"In this case, the city sought a protective order consistent with its decades-long policy," Patton said. "We recognize the policy needs to be updated, and while we await guidance from the (task force), we are working to be as transparent as possible."

The controversy over the Chatman case erupted just days after video of McDonald being shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke went viral, sparking protests and leading to the forced resignations of both police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Scott Ando, who headed the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police shootings.

Emanuel has faced calls for his own resignation amid the continuing police scandal.

Chatman, 17, was shot on the afternoon of Jan. 7, 2013, near 75th Street and Jeffery Boulevard, court records show. Fry and his partner, Lou Toth, were responding to a report of a carjacking when they stopped the silver Dodge Charger Chatman was driving because it matched the description of a stolen car read over police radios.

Police said that as the two plainclothes officers approached, Chatman ran south on Jeffery with one of the officers trailing close behind.

The second officer _ identified as Fry in the lawsuit _ ran diagonally to try to cut off Chatman's path, police said.

At some point, Chatman "pointed a dark object back toward the officers as he continued to run," according to IPRA.

Fry, fearing for his life, fired four shots, striking Chatman once each in the right side of his body and right forearm, IPRA said in its report.

Authorities believe the black iPhone box recovered at the scene had been obtained by Chatman in the carjacking, according to IPRA, which ruled the officers' actions justified.

However, Lorenzo Davis, the IPRA supervisor who headed up the Chatman probe, filed a federal lawsuit last year alleging he was fired for concluding that officers in several shootings _ including Chatman's _ were not justified in using lethal force.

Davis, who viewed the surveillance video as part of the IPRA inquiry, told the Chicago Tribune in November he did not see Chatman aim at or turn toward the officers.

"Cedrick was just running as the shots were fired," Davis said. "You're taught that deadly force is a last resort and that you should do everything in your power to apprehend the person before you use deadly force.

"I did not see where deadly force was called for at that time."

Fry's lawyer, Andrew Hale, said in a statement Wednesday that the videos back up the officers' account of what happened that day.

"Officers Fry and Toth identified a carjacked vehicle and had reason to believe that the suspect was armed," Hale said. "After disobeying the officer's order to exit the vehicle, the suspect reached to the floor and ran out of the vehicle with a dark object in his hand."

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Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.