Chicago police releasing videos more quickly
CHICAGO — When a white Chicago police officer fatally shot black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014, it took more than a year for video of the shooting to be released under court order.
When a black man armed with a gun was fatally shot by a white officer on Saturday, it took a day.
The stark contrast shows a city that once engaged in a months-long legal battle to keep the McDonald video under wraps, now is moving more quickly following reforms forced on the police department.
But transparency only partly explains the change of heart.
Release of the video in 2015 showing McDonald being shot 16 times sparked massive and sometimes violent protests, prompting the ouster of the police chief and a federal investigation of the Chicago Police Department.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said he ordered video released one day after the shooting of Harith Augustus to show that Augustus was armed, and to prevent a repeat of violent clashes Saturday night between baton-wielding police and demonstrators throwing bottles and rocks. While releasing the short clip of video hasn’t satisfied community activists, protests since have been peaceful.
“The narrative out there was there was no gun,” Johnson said. “I have an obligation to make sure the city is safe and calm.”
Here is an explanation of how Chicago got from the uproar over the McDonald video three years ago to the situation now.
BODY CAMERAS FOR ALL
In 2015, months before the McDonald video was released to the public, the city had launched a body camera pilot program. Among the reforms introduced after the McDonald video release was an acceleration of that program. By late last year all 7,000 patrol officers had been equipped with body cameras as part of a larger effort to restore public trust in the police force.
Under the police department’s general orders, officers are required to turn their cameras on at the beginning of pretty much every incident they might be involved with, including traffic stops, calls for service, pursuits, arrests, interrogations, use of force incidents and seizures of evidence.
The orders make it clear that there may be times when officers can’t turn on their cameras but that they must activate them “as soon as practical.”
Officers can be disciplined for not using the cameras, and nearly two dozen have been sanctioned after a department review found they had purposely misused dash cam microphones or simply failed to turn them on. Spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said officers also have been disciplined for not activating their body cameras.
GETTING THE EVIDENCE OUT
Under a policy enacted after the McDonald unrest, the city must release a video of a fatal police shooting within 60 days, and this year the Civilian Office of Police Accountabilty (COPA) has done just that. At least two videos have been released this year, once in January after an officer opened fire on an armed man running down a flight of stairs, and last month after an off-duty officer exchanged gunfire with suspects in an attempted carjacking.
Johnson has also shown a willingness to release video that paints his officers in a less-than-flattering light. After officers fired at a fleeing stolen car in July 2016 — an apparent violation of department policy — and killed Paul O’Neal, Johnson ordered the video released within a week.
There remain a number of issues with the body cameras and their operation. In the O’Neal shooting, for example, the body camera worn by the officer who shot him was not working.
Police said it was unclear if the officer was turning the camera off when he thought he was turning it on or if his body camera was deactivated when the stolen car slammed into his squad car with enough force to activate the air bags.
The most recent shooting revealed another issue. Because of the way the cameras work, not all of a body cam video has sound. While the cameras are working all the time, they are not storing the information. Only when an officer double presses what is called an “event button” does the camera store the previous 30 seconds, but only video is being stored and not the sound. But from the instant the button is double pressed, both the video and the audio are being stored.
Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Axon, the company that manufactures the body cameras Chicago police officers wear, said that sound from the 30 seconds before the officer presses the button is not stored to protect the privacy of the officer.
Because the officers involved in the shooting did not double tap the buttons of their cameras until after the shooting, the previous 30 seconds of video, which Johnson released to the public, does not include audio.
While some critics of the department say the audio of the conversation between Augustus and the officers at the scene is crucial to understanding why he wheeled and ran, Tuttle said if officers were worried about someone hearing their private conversations they might wait longer to double-press the buttons, meaning that both the sound and the video itself would be lost.
The department said it doesn’t know of other officers at the scene double-tapped their cameras early enough to capture the conversation Augustus was having with officers before the shooting. The department said those videos have been turned over to COPA, which has not yet released them.