Last Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proclaimed the arrival of a fresh new era of sincerity and openness concerning policing in Chicago. “I know that personally, I have a lot of work to do to win back the public’s trust, and that words are not enough,” the mayor told the City Council.
Referring to the video of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, Emanuel said: “Every day that we held onto the video contributed to the public’s distrust. And that needs to change.”
And he wasn’t content to wait for change, he made clear: “It starts today. It starts now.”
But it hasn’t started yet, as far as I can tell.
The mayor fought for months to suppress the video showing the slaying of the 17-year-old McDonald. And now he’s continuing to fight to suppress videos of the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Cedrick Chatman almost three years ago.
On November 25, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Chicago Police Department, seeking the Chatman videos. The department took its one permitted extension, of up to five business days, on December 4. With that extension, CPD’s response to my FOIA request was due last Friday.
On Thursday, Sergeant Landon Wade, who works in CPD’s FOIA department, called to inform me that CPD wouldn’t be making its deadline. My request was “under review,” Wade said. “We will have responsive documents, but I can’t say definitively when that date is.”
In a follow-up e-mail that afternoon, I asked CPD to explain why it would be missing its deadline. I haven’t gotten an answer.
I wrote about the Chatman shooting at length in May. Chatman was fleeing from a strong-armed robbery committed in the South Shore neighborhood on an afternoon in January 2013. He was alone in a Dodge Charger when police officer Kevin Fry and his partner, Lou Toth, caught up to the car at a stoplight on 75th Street just east of Jeffery. Chatman dashed out of the Charger across 75th, with Toth on his heels. When Chatman got to the sidewalk on the south side of 75th, he turned west, sprinting toward Jeffery. The distance between Chatman and Toth widened, and Chatman neared the corner.
Fry meantime had run diagonally into 75th Street, his semiautomatic pistol drawn. Chatman, five-foot-seven and 133 pounds, was unarmed, but he had a dark gray iPhone box in his right hand. He “slowed down at the corner and began to turn to his right,” Fry would later tell an investigator for the Independent Police Review Authority. “I was able to see a dark object in his hand which I believed to be a handgun. . . . In fear of Officer Toth’s life and my own life, I fired four shots.” One of the shots struck Chatman in the right side. He was pronounced dead within the hour.
Parts of the incident were captured by a Police Observation Device at the intersection, a camera of South Shore International College Prep, which is on the southwest corner of 75th and Jeffery, and the cameras of a food mart on the intersection’s southeast corner.
A wrongful death suit filed by Chatman’s mother, Linda Chatman, against Fry and the city is pending in federal court. Her lawyers contend that the videos don’t show Chatman slowing or turning to his right at the corner; they simply show Chatman fleeing at top speed. The lawyers maintain that Fry fired at Chatman just because he was getting away.
As I reported in May, Fry had previously been involved in the shooting of another unarmed 17-year-old. On a summer night in 2007, in the Austin neighborhood, Fry and two other officers stopped Eric Tonson because they suspected he had a gun—his jacket pocket was drooping and he was clutching that side, the officers would later maintain. Tonson fled into a schoolyard, and Fry and one of the other officers chased him and cornered him in a dark alcove. Then, according to the officers, Tonson reached into his waistband and extended his arm at the officers. They said they saw something shiny and opened fire, Fry shooting once and the other officer twice. One of the shots—it was never clear whose—struck Tonson in the neck. He survived.
No gun was found on Tonson or in the schoolyard. The officers said the shiny object they saw must have been the teen’s belt buckle. Tonson sued the city and won a $99,000 settlement. After an investigation that lasted more than five years—and that concluded less than three months before Fry shot Chatman—IPRA deemed the shooting justified.
The Laquan McDonald video was released because of a November 19 ruling against the city by Cook County Circuit Court judge Franklin Valderrama in a FOIA case. Freelance reporter Brandon Smith had sought the video from CPD in a FOIA request filed in late May. Like the FOIA requests for the McDonald video from numerous other journalists, Smith’s was ultimately denied. In early August, he appealed in court.
CPD asserted that release of the video could interfere with the ongoing criminal investigations of the shooting being conducted by the state’s attorney’s office and the FBI, or the pending IPRA disciplinary investigation. That argument often worked before 2010. But that year, Illinois finally strengthened its puny FOIA law, and one of the amendments stipulated that a law enforcement agency could no longer withhold material because other law enforcement agencies were conducting law enforcement or disciplinary proceedings—the agency that received the FOIA itself had to be in the midst of such a proceeding. When CPD got Smith’s FOIA, it was no longer investigating the McDonald shooting, Valderrama noted—it had turned over that job to the state’s attorney and the FBI.
The police department is on even shakier ground in withholding the Chatman videos. There is no ongoing criminal investigation: the state’s attorney’s office in May 2013 declined to prosecute Fry, citing “insufficient evidence of criminal intent.” Nor is there a pending disciplinary investigation: in June, IPRA closed its investigation of Fry, concluding that his shooting of Chatman was justified.
That conclusion by IPRA is another wrinkle in the Chatman case. In July, IPRA fired Lorenzo Davis, one of its supervisors of investigators. Davis subsequently sued the city and IPRA’s chief administrator, Scott Ando. (Ando resigned under pressure last week.) Davis charges that he was ordered to change the content of investigative reports to reflect more favorably on officers, and that in at least six cases in which investigators had sustained allegations against officers, he was directed to change those findings.
One of the six cases was Fry’s shooting of Chatman. According to records I’ve obtained, Davis and the lead investigator in the case concluded that Fry’s use of deadly force was “excessive and not justified.”
I’ve also asked IPRA for the Chatman videos in a separate FOIA request. Like CPD, IPRA invoked the five-day extension. Its response is due today.
In Linda Chatman’s lawsuit, the city’s lawyers won a protective order last year barring release of the videos before the case is tried. Last Wednesday, U.S. District judge Robert Gettleman denied the motion of Chatman’s lawyers to lift that protective order, but indicated he might grant the motion at the next court hearing, on January 14. The protective order governs only matters in the court case; it doesn’t preclude CPD or IPRA from releasing records in response to FOIA requests.
I haven’t seen the videos. I doubt they’re nearly as definitive as the McDonald video, what with various cameras at 75th and Jeffery capturing different segments of the incident. Even Chatman’s lawyers have acknowledged that much of the footage is grainy and that in the video with the best perspective, the images are quite small.
But as the mayor said last week, suppressing videos of police shootings contributes to the public’s distrust. He’s asked his new Task Force on Police Accountability to recommend changes to the city’s practice of suppressing videos while criminal or disciplinary investigations are pending against officers. There’s no need to wait months, however, for a task force’s recommendations in a case such as the Chatman shooting, in which no investigations are pending.
The Illinois Freedom of Information Act requires “disclosure of requested information as expediently and efficiently as possible and adherence to the deadlines established in this Act.” If the mayor wants to usher in a new era of law enforcement accountability, he can start by beginning to follow the law.