More police officers are being prosecuted for killing people — and the availability of video evidence is a big reason why. The power of that evidence to change the narrative surrounding a killing was made clear Tuesday when the city of Chicago released a video of a police officer shooting a teenager that dramatically differed from earlier police accounts and led to a murder charge against the officer.
An early report in the Chicago Tribune of the October 2014 shooting by a police officer of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, citing “authorities,”1 said McDonald was holding a knife and “allegedly lunged at police, and one of the officers opened fire,” shooting him in the chest.
A month later, a whistleblower told journalist Jamie Kalven that the shooting wasn’t being investigated “vigorously,” Kalven has said. Kalven obtained a copy of McDonald’s autopsy via a Freedom of Information Act request. The autopsy found that McDonald was shot 16 times, all over his body. A video of the shooting, released Tuesday after a legal fight, shows McDonald walking away from officers before he crumples to the ground, shot by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. There is no sign of him lunging at police with a knife. (The video, which is graphic, is posted on YouTube; the encounter between Van Dyke and McDonald begins at around 4:45.)
On Tuesday, 13 months after the shooting, Anita Alvarez, the state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois, announced first-degree murder charges against Van Dyke in the shooting of McDonald. The announcement was made a few hours before the release of the video, which the city of Chicago had resisted for months until it was ordered to make the video public by a Cook County judge on Thursday. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided not to appeal the ruling.
Alvarez’s statement Tuesday, explaining the same-day timing of the murder charges, showed the power of video evidence: “I made a decision to come forward first because I felt like, with the release of this video, that it’s really important for public safety that the citizens of Chicago know that this officer is being held accountable for his actions.”
Van Dyke’s lawyer said the shooting was justified because the officer feared for his own safety and that of the other officers present.
More killings by on-duty police officers are being caught on various types of cameras — dashcams, as was the case for Van Dyke; body or helmet cameras; security cameras; or, often, witnesses’ cellphone cameras. Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip M. Stinson, who keeps a database tracking thousands of incidents in which police officers were arrested since 2005, has counted six people fatally shot this year by on-duty police officers who were later prosecuted. Five of those prosecutions used video evidence of the shooting. Six cases used video last year — including McDonald’s death — which was a high since Stinson started counting. Of 15 shooting deaths for which police officers have been prosecuted since the start of 2014, 11 involved video evidence. Just 11 of 44 shooting deaths from 2005 through 2013 for which police officers were prosecuted involved video evidence. The number of fatal shootings that have led to prosecutions has climbed, though not as quickly as the number of prosecutions aided by video: an average of 7.3 annually since 2012, up from an annual average of 4.3 from 2005 through 2011.2
“Video is making a huge difference in cases that I don’t think would have resulted in charges against a police officer but for the video,” Stinson said in an email.
Video evidence doesn’t guarantee indictment or conviction. None of the 15 officers charged this year with fatal shootings has been convicted. One, Lisa Mearkle, was acquitted this month after a trial in which the jury was shown video of her shooting David Kassick. Most of the rest of the officers won’t start trial before the end of the year. And the increasing availability of video evidence doesn’t appear to have coincided with a reduction in the number of people killed by police, a figure that dwarfs the number of police officers prosecuted for fatal shootings. (The vast majority of people killed by police officers are killed with guns.) Killed By Police, a Facebook page that tracks police killings fairly accurately, has counted 1,072 police killings so far in 2015, compared with 1,108 in all of last year. The federal government doesn’t keep a reliable count of police killings.
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