For 13 months, the Chicago Police Department had dashcam video showing one of its officers shooting Laquan McDonald but didn’t release it. That finally did happen, though only after a court mandate.
But it doesn’t always play out this way when a city’s police department shoots and kills a citizen.
That was evident this week in two West Coast cities, Seattle and San Francisco, where authorities were proactive following deadly officer-involved shootings. In one case, dashcam videos and a detailed narrative emerged almost immediately. In the other, officials made several changes right away and pushed for others — all in the spirit of preventing such a thing from happening again.
“This country has seen far too many incidents where conflicts between police and young men of color result in the death of a young person,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said Monday, after outlining what his city would and should do differently. “… We’re not this kind of city. That’s not our values.”
There are plenty of valid reasons for authorities, be they elected officials like Lee or law enforcement leaders, not to do too much, too quickly after a police officer kills in the line of duty. One fear is that releasing too much information will taint the potential jury pool; another often cited reason, as in Chicago, is that doing so could undermine ongoing investigations.
Still, there’s also a price to pay for not being immediately transparent or for waiting for all the facts to come in before enacting changes.
Just ask Garry McCarthy, ousted as Chicago police superintendent after the McDonald dashcam video came out and one of his officers, Jason Van Dyke, was charged with murder in the black teenager’s death. Or Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who faced calls to resign for his handling of the same case. Or the northern Illinois city’s police department as a whole, after U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a Justice Department investigation into whether its officers have made a habit of violating the law or the U.S. Constitution.
While neither department mentioned Chicago specifically, Seattle and San Francisco officials both took a different tack.
Seattle: Dashcam videos released within hours
Specifically, Seattle chose to release a great deal of information — both in words and pictures.
Police recounted how a “35-year-old violent felon” (who was not named) began “manipulating a handgun in his pocket” around 12:35 p.m Monday, then brandished a gun at a Turkish restaurant and then at a tattoo parlor. Under the threat of violence, the man managed to carjack three vehicles — a Volkwagen Golf, a minivan, and finally a Chevy Camaro — one after the other.
Eventually, Seattle police were on to him. And chasing him.
If the department’s written account wasn’t enough, it posted a compilation of several related dashcam videos on its website. The public didn’t have to wait 13 hours, much less 13 months.
This footage showed the Camaro driving erratically, including against traffic in one stretch. At one point, one officer is heard calling out, “Shots fired, he’s shooting at us!”
A police car eventually slams into the Camaro head on, after which both vehicles appear at a standstill. But not for long, as the Camaro revs up again and starts moving “towards police.”
“The suspect reportedly pointed his gun at officers, … who opened fire,” Seattle police said. “The suspect died at the scene, with two guns found in his possession.”
San Francisco: New shields, instructions amid probes
The San Francisco incident, which took place a few days earlier, on December 2, is not as clear-cut. And there is cell phone video that Lee said he found “very upsetting, and it raised a number of questions.”
According to police, it started around 3:50 p.m. with word of a stabbing victim being dropped off at San Francisco General Hospital. Officers believed they spotted the person who did it about 45 minutes later, finding him “armed with a knife.”
As in Seattle, San Francisco police offered a detailed narrative on what they say happened next. This included instructions for officers “to create time and distance from the suspect,” as well as using pepper spray and a “bean-bag gun.” One such attempt caused the man “to drop to one knee, but did not cause him to drop the knife.”
“One of the officers moved to … prevent the suspect from fleeing,” police said. “Still armed with the knife, the suspect moved towards that officer. At this point, fearing serious injury or death, officers fired their … handguns at the suspect.”
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr suggested this would have ended differently if officers had Tasers. “I don’t think you’d all be standing with me” if that were the case, Suhr told reporters, pushing for access to a tool that’s been resisted by the city’s police commission.
Lee noted that “there are three investigations underway (into the death), and no conclusion has been reached.”
But the mayor didn’t wait for those probes to finish before acting. The same week the incident happened, he noted, police officers began getting protective shields (to let them get closer to someone with a knife), changed instructions about “when and how officers use their firearms and (increased) mandatory, recurring training on de-escalation skills.”
Furthermore, Lee announced Monday that he’s asked his city’s police commission “to do a thorough review of all existing policies regarding the use of force to make it perfectly clear that the department’s policy is that using lethal force is the last resort.”
“As mayor,” he said, “I commit that we will take all necessary steps to prevent these kinds of incidents when possible to ensure public safety, protect the lives of our young people and maintain officer safety.”