As this country continues to watch horrific police shootings captured on videotape, it has been especially troubling to see efforts by police forces to hide the truth. It seems that if we are ever going to find a way to curb unjustified police shootings in general, and unjustified police violence against black men in particular, the first step must be to have an honest conversation about when and why such violence occurs. But that cannot happen when videotape evidence of the shootings is intentionally hidden from the public eye.
A couple of stunning examples of outrageous police shootings and cover-ups illustrate this point. First, there was a shooting in Chicago, where a police officer fired more than a dozen shots into the car of some unarmed black teenagers who had been pulled over for speeding, but who tried to back away when an officer charged at the car with his gun poised as if to shoot at them. The video of this shooting (below) is truly shocking. Retired Cook County Judge Andrew Berman was so upset by the video that he described the officer’s actions as the most unsettling thing he’d seen in his 18 years as a judge and 17 years as a public defender, stating, “I’ve seen lots of gruesome, grisly crimes. . . .But this is disturbing on a whole different level.” Judge Berman added, “My first reaction was, if those are white kids in the car, there’s no way they [would] shoot. . . . You don’t start firing into a car full of unarmed people. . . .You just don’t do that.”
So, why wasn’t there more public outrage and media coverage about this deeply disturbing December 2013 police shooting? Because the video was kept secret. When the injured teens’ families sued the Chicago Police Department alleging blatant violations of CPD policy, lawyers for the City successfully convinced a judge to put the video under a protective order, barring the teens’ families or lawyers from showing it to the public. The video only came to light recently, when Judge Berman gave the Chicago Reporter the footage. We have seen all too often that without a video to impeach them, police officers may invent justifications for shooting, so it is imperative that the victims and public have access to any video evidence.
A second example is what occurred after a Chicago police officer shot teen Laquan McDonald in October 2014. The police claimed that they shot McDonald after he lunged at them with a knife, but the police car dashboard camera footage – which the City, to this day, has refused to release – is claimed to show McDonald walking away while officers jump from a car and gun him down. Even more troubling, detectives went into a nearby fast food restaurant the next day, without a warrant, and 86 minutes of the restaurant’s surveillance footage (film that presumably would have captured the shooting) disappeared. Such subterfuge is aimed at preventing openness and accountability, and it stifles the meaningful conversation that we need to have about ending the police’s all too frequent assault on young black men.
With more and more people filming police encounters on their cell phones, we are seeing video footage that uncovers dishonesty around police shootings (think Walter Scott, the South Carolina man who was killed by police: the officer claimed Scott had grabbed his stun gun, but a bystander’s video showed Scott running away while one officer shot him in the back and another officer dropped a stun gun at his side). But it can’t be that we have to rely on happenstance cellphone recordings to uncover the truth. Even when people don’t happen to fortuitously film the encounter, police body cameras and dashboard cameras, as well as video surveillance cameras, often capture police shootings. It is essential that such videos not be buried. The dialogue this country needs to be having depends on it.