Chicago has a full-blown debacle on its hands.
The release of disturbing dashcam video (below) showing the allegedly murderous and assuredly tragic shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke didn't surface until more than a year after the tragedy.
The video only came to light after a freelance journalist, Brandon Smith, asked a judge to force Chicago authorities to release it. It appears that footage from four dashcams in other police units at the scene has yet to be released. And 86 minutes of video from a nearby Burger King security camera has gone missing.
Before the video was seen around the world, police, prosecutors and city officials said the shooting was justified. It clearly wasn't.
The city sat on the video as onetime Obama administration honcho Rahm Emanuel beat Chuy Garcia in the political race of his life, denying his challenger the chance to become the Windy City's first Latino mayor.
A New York Times op-ed piece is calling it a "coverup" that benefited Emanuel politically. As it is, Van Dyke is facing a homicide case; and there are calls for Emanuel's head. How could City Hall keep a lid on what really happened to the teenager, shot as he posed no direct challenge to the officers on scene?
"The video of a police shooting like this in Chicago could have buried Mr. Emanuel’s chances for re-election," law professor Bernard E. Harcourt opines in the Times.
Yesterday Illinois' attorney general asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the shooting and its aftermath. "Trust in the Chicago Police Department is broken," said AG Lisa Madigan.
Here's the thing: The Los Angeles Police Department is equipping all of its officers in the field with body cameras. The move, backed by federal funds, is being undertaken in the name of transparency.
But LAPD has instituted a policy that will keep the video out of public view except when a judge orders otherwise or when department brass think the taxpayers who normally foot the bill for such gear should be allowed a peek.
The ACLU of Southern California was not happy. It wrote a letter to federal officials (unsuccessfully) urging them to withhold a $1 million grant that would help pay for some of the equipment:
By withholding video from the public, requiring officers to review video before making statements in use of force and misconduct investigations, and failing to include protections against the use of body-worn cameras as general surveillance tools, LAPD’s policy provides no transparency and threatens to taint the integrity of investigations and undermine the public trust.
The LAPD is essentially saying, "Trust us." But the whole point of "transparency" is to show your cards and put trust in evidence.
Have there been cases where video and audio have disproved the claims of officers that no laws were broken during arrests and uses of force? Of course. You know this.
The department sat on patrol car video of Officer Mary O’Callaghan kicking a handcuffed woman who later died; the cop was convicted of assault under the color of authority. The video was revealed only after a judge ordered it so.
The city also is fighting the release of nearby security video of the beating of 22-year-old Clinton Alford in South L.A. Cops snatched the video after swarming the store with a search warrant in hand the day after the confrontation; a patrol car was stationed outside the jeans shop overnight, ostensibly to ensure that the "evidence" didn't walk away.
Depositions in the ongoing case — one officer faces an allegation of assault under the color of authority — indicate that Alford was punched, kicked and elbowed by multiple cops.
"The city has dedicated tremendous resources in making sure that video never sees the light of day," says longtime journalist and LAPD critic Jasmyne Cannick. "I wouldn't be surprised if the city settles with Alford just so that video is never shown."
The City Attorney's Office has successfully persuaded a judge to limit the video's reach and gag those who have seen it.
In other cases the LAPD has used media to impugn critics, including deposed Los Angeles Times contributor Ted Rall, a cartoonist whose story of a rude encounter with a cop was debunked following a department campaign against him that included years-old audio, previously unknown to the world, of the confrontation.
After African-American actress Daniele Watts accused police of racism in a 2014 LAPD stop for public sex, audio of the confrontation was leaked to the media.
Chief Charlie Beck has argued that bodycam footage will be flowing from thousands of cops daily and that ordinary citizens caught in the lens shouldn't have to have their privacy violated in the name of transparency.
People in their underwear who answer the door because neighbors wrongly called 911 would fall victim to the public's right to know.
But that's a specious argument. Nobody really wants such quotidian footage.
What police critics and civil libertarians are calling for — clearly — is the release of video in controversial cases where police misconduct and misuse of force is alleged.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Surely there's a way to get video of contested confrontations to the public without capturing innocents in their underwear or crime victims in times of deep, personal trauma. For example: California Public Records Act requests by the media could do the trick. Or ACLU requests could be honored. Cases where suspects or witnesses allege misconduct also could trigger release.
"You can't say you want transparency and then do everything possible to not be transparent," Cannick says.
The politically appointed Los Angeles Police Commission approved the bodycam policy for the department. We reached out to commission President Matthew M. Johnson but did not hear back.
We wouldn't want what was happened in Chicago to happen here. But, first and foremost, there should never be anything to cover up.