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After 15 freedom of info requests, Chicago police release video of shooting

A protester shouts at Chicago police officers hours before the release of a video showing an officer shooting Laquan McDonald
A protester shouts at Chicago police officers hours before the release of a video showing an officer shooting Laquan McDonald

REUTERS/Frank Polich

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 17 December 2015.

It took 13 months, 15 Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and a lawsuit for the city of Chicago to release the video of Laquan McDonald's shooting by a police officer. This is only the latest example of a growing trend to restrict transparency and access to information concerning police brutality in the United States.

On November 24, two days before Thanksgiving, the city of Chicago released police dash cam footage showing 17 year-old African American Laquan McDonald being shot by white police officer Jason Van Dyke. The shooting took place on October 20, 2014 --- the video wasn't made public until 13 months later.

A total of 15 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were made with regards to Laquan's shooting. A FOIA request is the legal procedure by which the public can apply for information about government activities to be made public.

In May 2015, freelance journalist Brandon Smith filed a FOIA request to have the video released. After his request was denied in August, he filed a lawsuit against the Chicago police department, which led a judge to order the release of the video on November 19.

“[I] knew there was a video of the incident from other media reports but that it had not come out,” said Brandon to Reporters Without Borders. “We assumed everyone else was filing [FOIA] requests and being denied, which ended up being true.” Though Brandon's request to release the video to the public was denied, he did learn that a total of 14 other FOIA requests had been filed with various agencies in Chicago. Every one of them was denied.

According to Brandon, this is not a new phenomenon. “FOIA requests in Chicago in any case have long been either ignored or extended when they didn't need to be or exemptions [were used] that are tenuous at best”, he said. “If no one knows what the problem is, you're never going to solve it. They have effectively prevented people from knowing what the problem is.”

Brandon Smith is still seeking more information in an attempt to find direct evidence of a cover-up. But his lawsuit has certainly helped draw national attention to a problem plaguing Chicago for far too long.

“It is unacceptable that it took 13 months. The Freedom of Information Act essentially failed its purpose, and in the end a lawsuit was the only way to compel the city to release information that should have been made public from the beginning. Thanks to relentless efforts from the journalist community, the video was finally released and has helped start a trend towards change,” said Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications officer at RSF's US office. “RSF will keep standing with the journalists who are working tirelessly to expose the truth.”

Major fallout

The release of the video has caused major fallout for the city of Chicago. Police officer Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder the same day the video was released. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was asked to resign on December 1 and the public is calling for Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez to step down. At the national level, the Department of Justice announced last week its plans to launch a federal civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department.

It is important to look at Chicago's attempt to keep information about Laquan McDonald's death from the public in the context of the recent arrests of journalists covering #blacklivesmatter protests. Brandon Smith told RSF “it seems like not all but many police think that just covering protests against them makes you dislike police. Certainly reporting on police brutality is seen as [being] against the police.”

The arrests of journalists in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and most recently in Minneapolis-Saint Paul highlighted an alarming trend of curtailing freedom of the press in the United States. The events in Chicago are only the latest in this pattern. “The United States, the country of the First Amendment, cannot afford to keep journalists from reporting, and keep the public from information they have a right to know,” said Margaux Ewen.

Since 2013, the U.S.' ranking on Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index has fallen by 14 points. It is now ranked 49 out of 180 countries.

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