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Police shot a Chicago teen 16 times. Now they’ve been ordered to release the footage.

Martinez Sutton, the brother of Rekia Boyd, an unarmed woman who was shot by a Chicago police officer, at a rally in April.
Martinez Sutton, the brother of Rekia Boyd, an unarmed woman who was shot by a Chicago police officer, at a rally in April.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Chicago police shot black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times on October 20, 2014. Now, after months of requests from local reporters and activists, a Cook County judge has ordered the Chicago Police Department to release the dash cam footage of McDonald's last moments by Thursday, and the city is preparing itself for potential unrest.

McDonald was killed after police responded to reports of attempted car break-ins in Chicago’s Archer Heights neighborhood, Jeremy Gorner of the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this year.

When officers arrived at the scene, they found McDonald, who was allegedly acting erratically and was in possession of a small knife. Officers tried to isolate him from bystanders with two squad cars, but he reportedly punctured a tire on one of the squad cars and damaged a front windshield. When officers exited the car demanding he drop the knife, they said McDonald lunged at them, prompting officer Jason Van Dyke to fire shots. A dash cam on a police car captured the incident in full, but the footage has not been released to the public.

Van Dyke was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder in the case, which is reportedly the first time in 35 years an on-duty Chicago police officer has been charged for such a case.

Brandon Smith, a freelance reporter, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to have the department release the video over the spring and summer.

When the department finally denied Smith’s request on August 4, it cited the ongoing investigation over McDonald’s death, adding that the video’s release would prevent a jury in Van Dyke’s case from being impartial. In Smith’s August brief, however, he said CPD was stalling and eventually barring release of the video "for political and PR reasons."

Justice Franklin Valderrama also found the department’s claim that the release of the videos would disrupt Van Dyke’s case to be "inadequate," resulting in his order to release the video last week.

The video of McDonald's shooting contradicts the police account, says family attorney

According to an account of the video McDonald family attorney Jeffrey Neslund gave Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, McDonald, whose autopsy showed he was using PCP at the time, is not shown running or lunging at the officers but is instead walking away. Neslund said the teen was shot from about 12 to 15 feet away, a total 16 times.

According to Neslund, police officer Van Dyke fired at McDonald multiple times even after he hit the ground. He was placed on paid desk duty after the shooting, and will appear before a federal grand jury next week to determine whether he will be indicted.

The New York Times obtained multiple complaints showing Van Dyke has used excessive force and racial slurs in the past. In 2007, he handcuffed another young black man, Ed Nance, so violently it caused severe injury to his shoulders, costing him thousands in medical bills and lost wages, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Filming police has been a game changer

The video of the shooting will be one of many in the past year revealing the final moments of a young black man succumbing to a fatal shooting in the name of police defense.

As previously reported, police officers generally tend to exhibit a higher bias against black people, making officers more likely to shoot black suspects than white ones. This bias can eventually be mitigated by training, but that's quite a long-game solution. In the meantime, to keep tabs on officers as well as the public they serve, the use of police vehicle dash cams and body cameras has been on the rise. Cellphone footage has taken off, too, with the proliferation of smartphones and social media. While some of these videos have uncovered hidden truths about the killings of unarmed black people, surveillance can also be helpful to police, as video evidence is statistically more likely to clear officers of wrongdoing.

Naturally, there is the human factor of manipulation of dash cameras and body cameras; the equipment must be turned on to capture the action, after all. Bystander footage can also be manipulated or edited, but on the whole, capturing such footage has been the difference between someone like former North Charleston, South Carolina, officer Michael Slager — who initially claimed he shot Walter Scott this year because Scott grabbed his Taser — going free or being held responsible for his actions, since his initial claims were dispelled by bystander footage. For many high-profile cases of police brutality and excessive force against black men in particular, the deciding factor has been the existence of video footage. Otherwise, it's the officer's word against a witness's — if there was a witness at all.

So while a peaceful rally is being planned tied to the release of this video, both the city and McDonald’s family members have expressed concern over the video's release because it could spark unrest similar to the events following the police-involved death of Freddie Gray in the spring in Baltimore. Chicago is already girding for possible unrest, ordering hundreds of extra plainclothes officers to don their uniforms in preparation for the video's release.

Chicago police’s longstanding problem with black residents

The Chicago City Council issued McDonald's family a $5 million settlement in April related to Laquan's death. A month later, city officials created a reparations fund for Chicagoans who were subjected to police brutality under former police Cmdr. Jon Burge from the 1970s until 1993 when he was fired. Burge’s "midnight crew" used suffocation, electric shock, and other extreme tactics to strong-arm mostly black and Latino men into divulging information or (often false) confessions. In addition to a $5.5 million fund, the city made a public apology to the victims and has set up counseling services for victims and immediate family members.

Still, police brutality among black men in particular has remained consistent. According to Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority, local police shot 50 people last year, of which 39 were black, seven were Hispanic, four were white, and one was of an unknown race.

After an information inquiry and civil case resulted in the release of data related to police brutality in Chicago last year, an alarming pattern surfaced. While a majority of the 12,000 CPD officers have been flagged for fewer than two overall misconduct complaints, 662 police officers were repeat offenders, individually cited for 10 or more complaints each. According to an investigation of this data and other information by the organization Truthout, a nonprofit progressive news organization, last year showed 500 local officers with more than 10 misconduct complaints between 2001 and 2006 were still serving on the force as of the report’s publication.

Several people in recent years have become the faces of such excessive force, often resulting in death at the hands of police. Rekia Boyd, 22, was one. Off-duty Chicago officer Dante Servin approached a group including Boyd asking them to quiet down. A different person in the group reportedly brandished a gun, prompting Servin to pull his unlicensed Glock. One of Servin's five shots hit Boyd, eventually killing her. Earlier this year, Servin was cleared of reckless discharge of a firearm and reckless conduct. The city settled a lawsuit with Boyd’s family in 2013, and Servin has maintained the shooting was "an accident."

Another case where locals are demanding the release of dash cam footage is Ronald "Ronnieman" Johnson. Members of Black Lives Matter Chicago are circulating a petition for the 25-year-old who was shot by Chicago Police detective George Hernandez about a week before McDonald was shot. According to the group, Johnson was unarmed, though CPD said officers were responding to calls for an alleged shooter.

Smith, the journalist who pushed for the dash cam footage to be released, spoke to the climate in Chicago that has contributed to such statistics.

"Chicago, of course, is highly segregated," Smith told Vox Friday. "When policing is done in communities of color, it's done in a much different manner than it's done in white communities. The data on police complaints supports that. … It's so easy for people in responsibly policed communities to think, ‘That happens over there,’ and to not advocate for reform. But really, these are our police. We the citizens give them their power, and thus they are our responsibility."