Judge’s decision could lead to release of more police shooting videos

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Photo by Emily Jan

Activists are divided over the release of dashboard camera videos like the one showing the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald last year.

As the city awaits the court-ordered release this week of a police video of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, Chicago activists are debating whether the footage should be made public.

Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled last Thursday that the video must be released by Nov. 25. The Chicago Police Department had argued that public airing of the footage would interfere with ongoing investigations by the Independent Police Review Authority, FBI, U.S. Attorney and a federal grand jury.

Valderrama rejected that position, ruling that the police department could not withhold a dashboard video based on the argument that it could impede an investigation being conducted by another agency.

Shot from a squad car in October 2014, the video reportedly shows McDonald, who is African-American, being fired upon 16 times by a white police officer.

“I worry a lot about these videos, because we have seen a lot of them and they get consumed [like entertainment],” said Page May, an activist with the group We Charge Genocide.

Longtime political organizer Mariame Kaba, founder and director of Project NIA, said she doubted the McDonald video would shed new light on the teenager’s death.

“It’s over a year now since this young man was killed, executed basically, and we have known since early in the year the details of that execution,” she said, citing news accounts of people who have seen it. “So the people who consistently are saying the video will provide more information are being disingenuous.”

She called the video “trauma porn.”

But Frank Chapman, field organizer and educational director of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, sees value in publicly airing videos of police shootings.

“I think that when crimes are committed by people sworn to uphold the law, who have been empowered by citizens to do that, then they have to be held accountable—and I think releasing this video is part of making that accountability happen,” Chapman said.

The McDonald family has not granted interviews, but their lawyer, Michael Robbins, recently told WTTW’s Chicago Tonight that McDonald’s mother does not want to view the video and does not want it released. Robbins did not return calls for comment for this story.

“If the family didn’t want this released, then [public airing of it] just adds to the injustice,” May said. “This video is about to be seen by millions of people. If [a police officer kills me] I don’t want my body turned into a viral video.”

Brandon Smith, the independent journalist who filed the lawsuit to gain access to the McDonald video, said he understands the family’s concerns. But he said the video could spur reforms and lead to greater police accountability.

“I do not begrudge them their position wanting their son’s death to not be public,” he said. “That said, it’s a high price to pay to keep that video private, and that price is the chance that reform does not happen.”

Some attorneys say Valderrama’s decision, which struck at the heart of the department’s rationale for rejecting requests for police shooting videos under the Freedom of Information Act, could force the city to release footage of other officer-involved shootings moving forward.

“In this instance, CPD is no different than any other employer of someone who is being investigated,” said Matt Topic, an attorney with the civil rights law firm Loevy & Loevy, who represented Smith.

Other Cook County judges are not bound by Valderrama’s decision because it is not an appellate court ruling. Yet Topic believes it likely sets a precedent for how similar cases will be handled.

“It’s something the [Chicago] police department is going to need to make sure that it’s complying with,” he said.

Brendan Healey, an attorney who specializes in FOIA law at the law firm Mandell Menkes, said the decision could have wider ramifications. The section of the law that allows agencies to withhold investigatory records is one that is “often abused,” and not just by police departments, he said.

In South Carolina last month, state police released dash-cam video of the shooting of Zachary Hammond, a white 19-year-old, but only after the investigation was completed and a prosecutor decided that the officer would not face charges. The state initially had rejected FOIA requests by three newspapers for the video, citing the ongoing investigation as the basis for their denial.

Protesters demonstrated nightly last week in Minneapolis after Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man, was shot by police on Nov. 15. Witnesses said Clark was handcuffed at the time, which police dispute, and activists there have called for the release of the video of that incident.

Smith said he was surprised that some Chicago-area activists don’t want the McDonald video released. But at this point, with his lawsuit won and the city on the verge of releasing it, he is hoping that it does more good than harm, he said.

“Mainly I just want to do right by the communities that have been impacted by [police violence],” he said. “I’m just trying my best to do right by them as best I know how.”

~ Reporting intern Caitlin Gerena contributed to this story.