A Chicago police shooting holds lessons for Baltimore

Chicago is on edge today in anticipation of the release of a dashboard camera video of a fatal 2014 police involved shooting. Said to be graphic and disturbing, the video reportedly shows Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots into the body of Laquan McDonald, an African American 17-year-old, in a Burger King parking lot. Mr. Van Dyke was indicted on first degree murder charges this morning.

All that would likely have been disturbing enough for Chicago residents, but the situation there became far more tense over the last year because of the lengths the police department and Mayor Rahm Emanuel went to prevent the release of information about the incident. City Hall fought for months to keep the video confidential, only to lose in court, and the mayor in the last few days found himself scrambling to tamp down the possibility of violent unrest. It's a lesson Baltimore officials should heed as the city embarks on its program to equip police with body cameras. When residents are promised accountability and transparency, they will accept nothing less.


Police encountered McDonald in October of last year after responding to complaints that someone was breaking into cars. Officers reported that he slashed the tire and damaged the windshield of a squad car. They said he refused to drop a knife and looked "crazed" — he would prove to have PCP in his system. A police spokesman at the time said that McDonald was walking toward officers threateningly, a "very serious threat" that left them with no choice to shoot, but witnesses immediately contradicted that story.

Suspicion mounted after the county medical examiner announced that McDonald had been shot multiple times, and it grew even more in February after freelance journalist Jamie Kalven obtained the autopsy through a public information act request. It showed bullet wounds from the top of McDonald's scalp down to his upper thighs, including some that appeared to enter through his back. In April, the city agreed to a $5 million settlement with the McDonald family, who had not yet filed a lawsuit — much as Baltimore did in the case of Freddie Gray. Still, the police department refused to release video of the incident, claiming that doing so could hinder investigations of the shooting. But a judge ruled that because other agencies are investigating, including the FBI, the department had no right to withhold it, giving the city a deadline of Wednesday to release it.


Officer Van Dyke's indictment today — a rarity for an officer involved in an on-duty killing in Chicago, just as it is in Baltimore — may have come just in time to quell the possibility of serious unrest in a city with a long history of racial tension when it comes to police practices. But it did not repair the damage done by the city's long effort to block release of the only objective record of what happened that night.

Part of Baltimore's settlement with the Gray family included a promise to accelerate the deployment of body cameras in the city's police department, and a pilot program began last month. But as the Laquan McDonald case proves, having video isn't enough. It matters what the city does with it.

The regulations Baltimore adopted to govern its body camera program call for videos to be released to the public upon request in accordance with the Maryland Public Information Act. In theory, that's a reasonable policy — the PIA includes rules to protect individuals' privacy and sensitive investigatory matters, and it also sets out standards for how and when the government must respond to requests. But in practice, it could wind up frustrating the very transparency body cameras are supposed to promise. The exemptions within the PIA have often been abused by government officials to keep private that which is embarrassing but also in the public interest. And as in Chicago, they can drag out disclosure through lengthy legal proceedings. Recent reforms in Maryland to ameliorate the situation remain untested.

There can be legitimate investigative reasons not to release a video immediately, for example to determine whether the officer and other witnesses are telling the truth, but that's not a justification for foot-dragging. In order to maintain the public trust, Baltimore police and other agencies that adopt body cameras need to view the Public Information Act as the floor not the ceiling in terms of disclosure for incidents in which police use force. Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson has already set that standard, saying that quickly releasing such video must be the "new normal." The public's expectations of transparency and disclosure have changed, and departments that fail to change their practices along with them merely sow the seeds of distrust.