Chicago Covers Up Police Shooting Videos, Attorneys Charge

A Chicago police officer, lower right corner of the frame, is seen aiming his gun at Cedrick Chatman, who is not pictured, during a foot chase on January 7, 2013, in Chicago. City attorneys on January 14 released grainy 2013 surveillance video showing the fatal shooting of the 17-year-old black carjacking suspect. City of Chicago Law Department/AP

As Chicago reels following the latest release of a police shooting video, attorneys are pointing at coverups as the most pressing issue.

In a last-minute about-face, the city on Wednesday reversed a long-standing objection to the release of footage showing the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Cedrick Chatman by a white Chicago police officer three years ago.

On January 7, 2013, two plain-clothes officers pulled up beside a car that had been reported stolen. They ordered the driver, 17-year-old Chatman, to get out. Chatman ran, and police officers Kevin Fry and Lou Toth chased after him.

At one point during the pursuit, Chatman "pointed a dark object toward the officers," according to the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates allegations of police misconduct. Allegedly fearing for his life, Fry shot Chatman four times. Though the dark object was later discovered to be a black iPhone box, the IPRA determined that Fry's actions were justified.

The grainy footage of the incident can be seen below:

The public outcry surrounding Chatman's case flared just days after the city on November 24, 2015 released footage of white police officer Jason van Dyke shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times, ultimately killing him. The city fought the release of that footage for more than a year, making it public only after it was ordered to do so in court.

The video laid bare a problem that had long been bubbling under the surface, says attorney Michael Oppenheimer, who represents the family of Ronald Johnson, the victim of a Chicago police officer shooting in 2014. "Most police officers are great," he says, "but the real problem is even beyond what goes on in these videos. It is the cover up."

Steve Patton, the head of Chicago's Law Department defended the last minute reversal regarding the Chatman video footage. "The city of Chicago is working to find the right balance between the public's interest in disclosure and the importance of protecting the integrity of investigations and the judicial process," he said in a statement.

"In this case, the city sought a protective order consistent with its decades-long policy. We recognize the policy needs to be updated, and while we await guidance from the Task Force on Police Accountability, we are working to be as transparent as possible."

The IPRA opens an average of three excessive-force complaints involving Chicago police officers each day, according to Injustice Watch, a Chicago-based nonprofit. But prosecutors, their analysis of federal and state data shows, bring excessive-force charges against officers only around two times a year.

The original independent police investigator in Chatman's case, Lorenzo Davis, ruled that the officer was not justified in using lethal force, saying Chatman fled without turning toward or posing a threat to the officers. The Chatman case was his last. Davis filed a federal lawsuit last year alleging that he was fired for refusing to change his findings that Chatman's and other shootings were unjustified.

"Initially the chief administrators would just go into the computer system and change my findings," Davis tells Newsweek. He says that evolved into threats of termination if he did not arrive at the "proper" conclusion.

Torreya Hamilton, Davis's attorney, called the McDonald video the "perfect storm of exposure," as it is rare to have such a crisp video with clear police misconduct. "It was very difficult given the timing of things for our leaders to deny that there was a coverup," she said.

And the public took notice, says Attorney Jeffrey Neslund, who represents McDonald's family. "What you have now in Chicago in particular is an outcry for transparency," he says. "If there is a video of an incident, we want to see it."

Without the videos, defense attorneys who spoke with Newsweek say, excessive-force cases come down to the officer's word against the defendant's. And when the defendants have records, they appear even less trustworthy. Though few cases have video documentation, their rare public release, some contend, could ultimately serve multiple purposes.

Davis thinks just the possibility of a video's eventual release will cause officers to act differently. "If the public is going to see the videos and they are going to be scrutinized," he says, "then that would be another check on the powers of the police."

Oppenheimer adds that it will chip away at the culture of "covering up."

But at the end of the day, the attorneys say, it is up to the public to apply the pressure. "As of right now," says Hamilton, "it seems to me that the only time the city will be transparent is when the city is forced to do so by a court or by public pressure."