A video the Chicago Independent Police Review Authority made available shows a police officer shooting 28-year-old Ismaaeel Jamison at a bus stop near 63rd and California in November 2012. Credit: IPRA

With the release last Friday of a batch of police shooting videos, Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority has given the public what it’s been clamoring for. But as visitors to IPRA’s portal have already learned, videos of police shootings rarely are clear, coherent, and germane. Many of the videos show “hours of things like cops milling around at crime scenes and grainy images of tree tops,” as WBEZ put it.

And even when a video is in focus and captures a shooting directly, it’s hard to know for certain what’s happening in it, let alone make any fair judgments, without more information. Few videos, in other words, are like the one showing officer Jason Van Dyke killing Laquan McDonald

Time will tell if IPRA’s data dump is a “watershed moment” that signals a “new era of handling public records” in the city. The videos, audio clips, and preliminary police reports pertain to 102 cases, 74 of which concern officer-involved shootings; the remaining videos and audio files are related to Taser discharges and other police use-of-force incidents.

“These materials may not convey all of the facts and considerations that are relevant to the investigation of an officer’s conduct,” IPRA’s chief administrator, Sharon Fairley, cautioned reporters Friday. “Sometimes videos may capture only a portion of an event, and leave out critical facts and context that are also relevant when assessing the conduct of anyone that’s involved in an incident.” 

That’s absolutely true. The problem is that under IPRA’s new policy, although videos of police shootings will be released quickly—usually within 60 days—the “critical facts and context” may not be made available to the public for months or even years.

The police reports that will be released with the videos generally contain sketchy information: when and where the incident occurred, and a brief narrative of it. 

The more comprehensive supplemental reports should provide details about what preceded and followed the shooting and what happened off camera—but they often aren’t completed for weeks. And even after they’re turned in and approved, they won’t be made available by IPRA—not until its investigation of a police shooting is completed, and even then, only after a successful Freedom of Information Act request. 

The version of the incident in the initial report and the supplementals is, of course, the police perspective. A more objective picture may emerge when the officers involved and other witnesses are questioned by IPRA investigators. Transcripts of these interviews, likewise, will only be available through a FOIA after IPRA’s investigation has been completed. 

There are valid reasons not to release information from an IPRA probe before it’s been completed. For example, witnesses who have yet to be interviewed by IPRA could shape their stories based on the prior testimony of others if they’ve been apprised of it.    

Valid or not, all this means that under IPRA’s new quick-release video policy, citizens will be able to watch the videos months before they can intelligently assess what they’re watching. 

IPRA can reduce this troublesome gap between release of the video and the release of the “critical facts and context” by picking up the pace of its shooting investigations, which sometimes take two years or more. 

One of the technically clearer videos IPRA made available Friday shows a police officer shooting 28-year-old Ismaaeel Jamison at a bus stop near 63rd and California in November 2012. Jamison, bare-chested and muscular, seems agitated in the video: he’s pacing at the bus stop, and he waves an arm when a squad car arrives. An officer points his gun at him, Jamison charges the officer, and then Jamison crashes to the ground. The police reports say Jamison battered the driver of a CTA bus and attacked other people on the street before the officer shot him in the chest and foot in self-defense. Other officers Tasered Jamison when he tried to get up.

The video of the Jamison shooting has been viewed more than 62,000 times since Friday. Three and a half years after the incident, IPRA has yet to decide whether the actions of police were justified, and since the investigation is still “pending,” the initial police reports are the only “critical facts and context” available from IPRA.

Fairley’s goal is to have most shooting investigations closed within six months, according to IPRA’s spokesperson, Mia Sissac. First, though, there’s a backlog of older cases to close. Sissac says that while completing those investigations, IPRA will be studying what took them so long, in an attempt to increase efficiency.  

Complicating matters is the fact that IPRA’s days are numbered: in April, Mayor Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force called for IPRA to be replaced with another oversight body, and Emanuel said last month he plans to do just that. Sissac says Fairley hopes that whatever lessons IPRA learns in the meantime will be used by the new oversight agency. 

The Police Accountability Task Force called for better investigations, not just quicker ones. Improving both the quality and efficiency of investigations is easier said than done. 

A larger investigative staff surely is needed. “It’s our hope that there will be a much more robust budget” for the new oversight agency, “which obviously includes people power,” Sissac says. 

If a larger staff produces more rigorous investigations, that also should mean reports with more “critical facts and context” will eventually be offered to the public. But how many people will read them? The public wants videos. Not many of the reports will go viral.