That’s how long it took Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to release the horrific dash cam video of Laquan McDonald crumpling under a barrage of bullets fired by police officer Jason Van Dyke.
City Hall was determined to keep the inflammatory visuals under wraps, but a videotape was finally made public in November after a freelance journalist, backed by a lawyer who also represents the Better Government Association, convinced a judge that sitting on the tape violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Since then, a debate has raged over how fast police videos—no matter how provocative—should be distributed.
The mayor’s task force on police accountability recently proposed a new policy: Release dash or body cam video within 60 days— 90 at the latest. In most cases that’s way too long.
Unless there’s a legitimate exemption, FOIA requires compliance with all requests for government material—printed, digital, audio or video—within five-to-10 business days.
Police officials should follow the law or they’ll be back in court—courtesy of the BGA or another watchdog— because it’s clear they’ve been routinely ignoring FOIA with these “pending investigation” claims, and the days of accepting that are over.
Other cities, including Seattle, try to release video in a day or less, and there’s no reason Chicago can’t make a similar effort. It’s true that, in some rare cases, immediate dissemination of a video could jeopardize an investigation.
But that determination requires careful, objective deliberation—not knee- jerk “open investigation” claims that are, as the McDonald case epitomizes, motivated by politics, not procedural integrity.
City Hall and CPD have to justify their requests for more time with convincing evidence, something they clearly failed to do with the McDonald video.
And even when distribution of a video is postponed, that can’t be an excuse for indefinite stonewalling while an investigation drags on.
Unjustified delays exacerbate an already-chronic lack of trust between cops and communities, and it’s prompting other elected officials to join the timing conversation.
Chicago Ald. Jason Ervin, who represents a West Side ward, introduced an ordinance mandating the release of police shooting videos within 14 days. That’s reasonable, as long as it doesn’t get watered down with exceptions that can be abused.
In Springfield, Rep. Art Turner, who’s also from Chicago, wants to change the way the courts referee requests for exemptions to the FOIA timeline. That could work if the procedures adequately protect the watchdogs, media organizations and citizens who request the videos.
For now, in the rare cases where it’s appropriate to delay a video’s release, the BGA supports a deadline of 30 days, with occasional extensions to 60. Everyone acknowledges the relationship between cops and communities is complex and daunting.
But one of the best ways to rebuild trust and confidence is to get important information out in the open expeditiously, and deal with it professionally, instead of engaging in politically-motivated stalling tactics.
City officials, including police brass, admittedly have competing interests to balance in formulating a protocol for making videos public, but they also have a lot of people who want to help them get it right.
Watchdogs like the BGA and the news media are offering guidance, lawmakers are considering mandates, and most encouraging from a civic engagement standpoint—a lot of regular people are talking about it.
Thankfully, this critical issue is finally getting the attention and the serious discussion it deserves.