On Wednesday, I filed suit against the Chicago Police Department because of its refusal to release the police car dashboard camera video that shows an officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald on the city’s southwest side last fall. The 17-year-old was shot 16 times, according to an autopsy conducted by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
On the night of the shooting, October 20, police received a report of a man breaking into vehicles in the Archer Heights neighborhood. Responding officers allege McDonald was carrying a knife he was using to stab tires, that the teen posed “a very serious threat,” that they ordered McDonald to drop the knife, and that he reacted by lunging at the officers.
An eyewitness, Alma Benitez, described the scene differently: “It was super exaggerated. You didn’t need that many cops to begin with. They didn’t need to shoot him. They didn’t. They basically had him face-to-face. There was no purpose why they had to shoot him.”
In early June, the city settled with McDonald’s family for $5 million after their lawyers obtained a copy of the video. According to the details of the settlement, the attorneys themselves can’t release the video to the public until the Independent Police Review Authority completes its investigation. (For perspective, IPRA’s investigations have taken years.) Back in April, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell talked to Jeffrey Neslund, one of the McDonald family attorneys who had seen the video. In her column, Mitchell interpreted Neslund’s description of the footage:
Laquan McDonald, 17, is walking west in the middle of Pulaski Road at 40th Street. He has a knife in his right hand.
He is not running.
He is not lunging.
He is walking.
Two Chicago Police officers jump out of a Tahoe with their guns drawn.
McDonald is still walking west toward the sidewalk with a full lane of traffic separating him from one of the officers.
When the officer begins shooting, the first shots spin McDonald around. The officer continues to fire from a distance of between 12 and 15 feet.
The only movement is the puffs of smoke coming from the teen’s torso and his head.
The police officer comes into view and kicks the knife out of the boy’s right hand.
The officer who pulled the trigger—his name hasn’t been released—has been assigned to paid desk duty.
CPD tells me the department has received and rejected 15 Freedom of Information Act requests for the footage of McDonald’s shooting, including my own. The department has denied all of those requests, citing the ongoing investigation. But according to Matt Topic, a civil rights attorney from Loevy & Loevy handling my suit, it’s the government’s burden to prove that releasing something like video footage would harm an investigation.
My fight for the release of the dash cam video began back on May 26. (You can follow the e-mail correspondence in
.) Police took ten business days before answering, which is typical. As the first deadline approached, a FOIA officer asked for an additional month to respond, which I granted. A day after the department blew that deadline, on July 9, I was asked for a July 31 extension. Instead, I granted the department two days. I received no response until July 31, at which point a FOIA officer said a reply would come no later than August 3. And when that day rolled around I received the same denial all other reporters have been given.
But I’m not taking no for an answer—particularly in light of Kalven v. Chicago, an Illinois Appellate Court decision last March that established information about police misconduct is public, except in limited circumstances that don’t apply in the case of the McDonald shooting video.
That case was brought by Chicago civil rights journalist Jamie Kalven. After he prevailed, he and his lawyers helped the city craft a more thorough transparency policy in accordance with the court’s decision. Apparently the Chicago Police Department believes the Kalven ruling doesn’t apply in the case of the shooting of Laquan McDonald.
I’d like to hear what the courts think.
Brandon Smith is a Chicago journalist focusing on social justice, digital privacy, science and technology, and the environment. He previously wrote about crypto parties for the Reader.