Withholding police videos: Making people safer, or just less informed?

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A screen shot of the dash-cam video showing teen Laquan McDonald being shot by police.

Update: Charlotte police changed course on Saturday, decide to release video after all 

In Charlotte, North Carolina, protests that began after a fatal police shooting there have intensified in recent days over the city’s decision not to publicly release the police video of the incident.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the city has been on edge since officials decided to release video on Monday of an officer fatally shooting an apparently unarmed man.

Meanwhile in Chicago, former police superintendent Garry McCarthy said in a speech this week that he believed the video of the fatal police shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald should not have been released to the public, contending the controversy has discouraged aggressive policing and empowered criminals. McCarthy’s comments stand in stark contrast to the conclusion of the Police Accountability Task Force, which called the release of the video “painful, horrific and illuminating in ways that irrefutably exemplified what those in communities of color have long said, and shocked and stirred the conscience of those in other neighborhoods.”

Across the country, courts, legislators and mayors grapple with whether to release videos of police shootings, pitting advocates who contend the release serves to guard against abuse against police officials and others who contend, as did McCarthy, that the videos serve to incite violence and make communities more dangerous.

“These issues are really not new issues,” said Jane Kirtley, an expert on transparency who is a law professor at the University of Minnesota. “The idea that someone looks at how police carries out duties and they’re going to lose confidence in police, it’s a very common argument that you hear,” added Kirtley.

The Laquan McDonald video was only released after Cook County Associate Judge Franklin Valderrama ordered its release. Just weeks before Valderrama’s order, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at a national police summit that the release of videos of police incidents nationwide had caused officers to go “fetal,” failing to aggressively police for fear of becoming caught on film doing something controversial.

But after the city’s Police Accountability Task Force in February recommended that videos be routinely released within 60 days of an incident, Mayor Emanuel swiftly adopted that recommendation.

That puts Chicago on the side of transparency in the nationwide debate.

Courts in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. have recently ruled, as did Valderamma, that police videos are public record; but a court in Ohio came to a contrary view, finding a video of a police stop was a “confidential investigatory record.” In Seattle, the police department has tried a pilot program to upload heavily redacted police video footage to YouTube for the public.

Elsewhere, state legislatures have considered laws to specifically declare the videos exempt from public disclosure, with support from local police officials.

Privacy concerns are often cited as reason to restrict release of police recordings, though transparency advocates such as Kirtley argue state public records laws already allow information to be withheld for privacy reasons.

A 2015 Florida law declares police footage taken on body cameras in a home or a place with a reasonable expectation of privacy is exempt from the public record.

This year, North Carolina passed a strict law placing both dashboard camera and body camera footage out of reach from public access, unless ordered by a court. The law does not go into effect until Oct. 1, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief Kerr Putney has refused to release video of the Tuesday shooting of Keith Scott despite calls to do so by Keith’s family, who have viewed it.

Days earlier, Tulsa officials took the opposite position following the shooting of Terrence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, releasing in the interest of transparency the video taken from police helicopters. The officer who shot Crutcher was charged Thursday with first-degree manslaughter.

As protests continued around the country in response to another police shooting, McCarthy on Monday blasted policies of releasing videos during investigations and blamed those practices for further sowing community distrust of police.

“Releasing videos is not going to build trust,” he said.

In contrast are the findings of the Police Accountability Task Force that the release of the video was a catalyst for reform that is needed to rebuild community trust. Until the video was released, the task force noted, the public knew only the police version of events, that McDonald was shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke as the teenager lunged at police with a knife.

Had the video not be released through the efforts of freelance journalist Brandon Smith, who filed the lawsuit that prompted its release, the task force wrote, McDonald’s death would likely have been “less than a footnote in the over 400 police-involved shootings of citizens since 2008.”

Once Judge Valderamma ordered the release of the video, which showed McDonald moving away from police when he was shot, was released, it became “the tipping point for long-simmering community anger,” the task force report notes. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder just before the city complied with the order to release the video, which then prompted widespread protests.

The U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation into the police patterns and practices, an investigation that remains ongoing. The task force was appointed by Mayor Emanuel to do its own report. And McCarthy lost his job.

Attorney Matt Topic, who filed the lawsuit on Smith’s behalf, agreed the video was crucial to reform.

“If it wasn’t for the release if that video, Jason VanDyke never would have been charged and none of the reform we’re talking about ever would have been discussed,” Topic said.

Reporting fellow Camille Darko contributed to this report

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