After a prolonged legal battle, Chicago police released a video of one of their officers, Jason Van Dyke, shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times Wednesday.
The video shows McDonald carrying a small knife, walking away from Van Dyke before the officer opens fire. The entire shooting took about 15 seconds, and McDonald was lying on the ground for 13 of them. An officer appears to kick at McDonald’s body after shooting him.
Van Dyke was finally charged with first degree murder more than a year after the shooting. Though State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has had the video for a year, the charges came days after a judge ordered the police to release the damning footage. City leaders quickly started scrambling to do damage control ahead of the release, realizing the video’s contents would inflame longstanding rage against Chicago PD’s rampant abuses. Chicago police killed more people than any other comparably sized police departments from 2010 to 2014.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) prefaced the release with a lengthy press conference urging people to stay calm. “I believe this is a moment that can build bridges of understanding rather than become a barrier of misunderstanding,” he said, while Superintendent Garry McCarthy said he understood people “had a right to be angry.”
An attorney for McDonald’s family said in April that the video “starts out as an unjustified shooting, and it turns into some kind of sadistic execution.”
Watch it (warning: graphic violence):
Chicago police fought hard to keep the dash cam video secret. A $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family was intended to bury the video. A manager at a Burger King near the shooting also told reporters in May that the police had deleted more than an hour of footage from his surveillance cameras.
Many police officers involved in high profile killings would likely have never faced charges without video evidence. Video footage often directly contradicts the official police reports and can back up witnesses who might otherwise be dismissed or intimidated into silence. In fact, Van Dyke already had a litany of accusations against him before he met McDonald, yet was never disciplined until now.
As part of the national push for criminal justice reform, lawmakers from local city council members to President Obama have called for more cameras on cops to hold them accountable. Police departments have received millions of dollars to purchase these cameras.
But the battle over the Laquan footage shows why police-controlled footage is far from a cure-all. Many states are fighting to keep the footage shielded from public records requests, effectively allowing police departments to decide what to release and what to withhold. Cops have also been caught tampering with the footage or turning the cameras off when they start to get violent.
The city has been roiling with anticipation of the video’s release, and protests are already filling the streets.