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Chicago Becomes Leader in Body-Camera Transparency

A decade ago, the Chicago Police Department drew national outrage after an officer shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Officials had refused to disclose footage of the murder while officers worked to cover it up. But the fallout from the case has also led to a lesser-known and surprising outcome: The city is now a leader in using body-camera footage to deliver transparency. Notably, an independent accountability office, not the police department, decides what footage from police shootings and other serious incidents is released to the public, ProPublica reports. “I’m not aware of any other civilian agency that does what Chicago does on releasing video,” said Florence Finkle, vice president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. “Transparency is key to accountability.” The city of Chicago created the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, and tasked it with not only investigating misconduct but also disclosing footage from shootings and other serious incidents.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability has committed to releasing footage within 60 days of an incident. “The people of the City have an undeniable, and in some cases paramount, interest in being informed, in a timely fashion and based on the most accurate information possible, about how their police force conducts its business,” the new policy stated. It also committed the city to giving family members of those shot an opportunity to see footage first. Jamie Kalven, a Chicago journalist and advocate who helped reveal what had happened to McDonald, said, “That case changed public expectations and norms in Chicago. Releasing the video became the new expectation.” The civilian agency uses its access to do thorough investigations, which on occasion, has resulted in officers being fired. COPA’s release of footage has also undermined the Police Department’s attempts to spin narratives around shootings. COPA can recommend discipline and offer suggestions, but it can’t impose it. Instead, discipline is decided by a separate civilian board. Despite this, policing does seem to be changing in Chicago as shootings by officers and incidents of officer use of force are down in recent years.


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