Before the horrific ambush of police in Dallas, President Obama got it right in his remarks about the police-involved shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile: “All of us as Americans should be troubled.” These unsettling viral videos of questionable police conduct are merely the latest in a seeming cascade of bystanders’ cell phone movies; sadly, they won’t be the last.
As it has become increasingly common to view such videos on “breaking news” broadcasts—much as the events in Dallas unfolded on live television—it’s worth noting that there are no impediments to immediate access to videos captured by witnesses and posted on social media. But what about access to video and audio recordings made by police body-worn and dashboard cameras, municipal security cameras, or private security cameras that are retrieved as evidence by investigating agencies?
In the aftermath of the City of Chicago’s belated release of the police dash cam video showing the October 2014 fatal shooting of Laquann McDonald, which was compelled by court order in November 2015, the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel examined the city’s handling, and practice of withholding, such videos from public release during the pendency of often lengthy investigations.
I served on the task force’s video release policy working group, whose recommendations resulted in Chicago becoming the first city in the nation to adopt a written policy guaranteeing the public’s timely access to information relating to sensitive police-involved incidents. Not intended to supplant the even tighter timeframe under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act, the city embraced a policy requiring recordings and reports related to certain police incidents be automatically released to the public within 60 days and allowing investigating agencies to request a one-time 30-day extension.
On June 3, Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority posted to its website recordings and reports involving 87 cases of police encounters with citizens involving the use of force, a dramatic step in a city that long sought to shield excessive force cases from the media and the public. There are now 110 digital entries, dating to 2011, involving firearm and taser discharges and other uses of force on IPRA’s website.
Regardless whether the source of a video is a witness or the police, the disclosure should never be presumed to tell the entire story and, perhaps, not even an accurate story. But by any measure, it is a piece of the story that must be assembled with other evidence to establish an accurate account. If the viral release of homemade videos cannot be contained and does not impede competent law enforcement investigations, then similar access ought to be granted to videos produced or possessed by government agencies.
In the digital age, we’re long past keeping a lid on violent encounters between police and citizens. Most often, released recordings will depict the heroic restraint of police officers faced with incredibly difficult challenges. Some will portray a murky middle ground of ambiguous conduct; others will yield instances of excessive force and intolerable overreaction. Removing the lid is an important step toward restoring and maintaining community trust between police and the citizens they serve and protect.