When Boston Police and the Suffolk district attorney’s office moved quickly to release video in two controversial police shootings this year, they won praise for transparency. But they also raised a lingering question: Would the authorities have acted so fast if the videos in question didn’t support the police account?
Hopefully, it’ll never come to that in Boston. But if there were ever any question about the proper response, the mishandling of a police shooting case in Chicago should be an illustration of how stonewalling can undermine community trust and make bad situations worse.
The case that is now roiling Chicago has been gathering steam for a year, since a white Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, as police responded to a call about car break-ins. The police initially said that McDonald was threatening officers. They did not release video of the incident, however, which was captured by a police car’s dashboard camera.
The police account was challenged by witnesses almost immediately. Then the city of Chicago reached a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family earlier this year, before the family even filed a lawsuit — an usual decision if the shooting were truly justified. Word began to spread that the video recording showed something far different than what police initially described.
At any point, the Chicago police and Mayor Rahm Emanuel could have decided to release the video. Instead, it took a journalist requesting the recording under the state’s public records law, and a local judge, to force the city’s hand.
The video, released Tuesday evening, showed Van Dyke gunning down McDonald with little justification, and then continuing to pump bullets into the body. None of the other officers at the scene fired their weapons. On Tuesday, with the video’s release imminent, prosecutors charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder.
Chicago had no good reason to withhold the tape. Emanuel offered the traditional excuse — that release would have compromised the investigation — which the judge properly rejected. To state what should be obvious: Just because authorities claim that releasing information would jeopardize a prosecution doesn’t make it true. While it’s possible that withholding a video recording for a short period of time might be necessary in some scenarios, McDonald’s shooting was clearly not one of them. And it’s hard to imagine that the city would have been so shy if the video vindicated the officers’ accounts.
The city’s decision to withhold the video has left it with a bigger challenge than it would have had otherwise. Whatever his motivations may have been, Emanuel created the perception that he placed the police’s interest above the public’s when he kept the video secret. “The mayor has to understand, you can’t keep waiting until it looks forced,” said Jedidiah Brown, founder of Chicago’s Young Leaders Alliance in the Chicago Tribune.
It’s a self-inflicted wound in a city where police were already mistrusted. That cannot happen again — in Chicago, Boston, or anywhere else.