The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Mayor Emanuel's Task Force Police Video Policy Ignores Public Right To Know

By Mark Konkol | February 19, 2016 6:45am
 Mayor Rahm Emanuel (from l.) and interim Police Supt. John Escalante
Mayor Rahm Emanuel (from l.) and interim Police Supt. John Escalante
View Full Caption
DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports keeping videos of police shootings a secret for up to 90 days.

That might not be how the City Hall spin machine would like to frame Emanuel’s position.

But it is the truth about what actually happened this week when the mayor quickly embraced an inexplicably rushed policy recommendation made by his hand-picked “Police Accountability Task Force.”

Our city deserves better.

There’s absolutely no disputing that dashcam videos and police reports rightly belong to the public.

But in Chicago, where most citizens have made it clear that they don’t trust the local criminal justice system, longtime City Hall policies have kept that information secret and effectively offered safe harbor for a code of silence in the Police Department that has protected dirty cops for generations.

Now some people might argue that setting a deadline requiring the release of videos and reports, which as of now remain secret either forever or until the end of a criminal case, is better than nothing.

RELATED: Chicago Police Hid Mics, Destroyed Dashcams To Block Audio, Records Show

Those people are clearly the policymakers on Emanuel’s police accountability task force.

Indeed, the mayor-endorsed police video policy specifically states its intention is to “strike a balance between competing and sometimes conflicting interests” of the public and “subjects of police action” and local, state and federal government.

Over the last two months, members of the mayor’s task force and a “work group” of lawyers, professors, a paralegal and a former U.S. attorney's spokesman whose favorite phrase has long been “no comment” gathered to discuss the topics of “officer identity and video release policies.”

Task force member Sergio Acosta, a respected lawyer and former federal prosecutor, led the group, which interviewed criminal defense attorneys and local law enforcement officials and reviewed how other states handle the release of police videos before making its recommendation.

The task force, however, didn’t dig too deep into the policies in states and cities that don’t keep police videos secret, including the Seattle Police Department, which generally releases police videos on the same day of an incident.

“I can’t tell you if the immediate release [of videos] compromises investigations in Washington state,” Acosta said. “You’d have to put that question to them.”

Why didn’t task force members do that kind of research? I asked.

“That’s a fair question,” Acosta said, without really offering an answer.

Instead, he explained that based on the experience of members on the task force and the work group, along with the testimony of people who discussed the issue with them, the 60- to 90-day deadline for the release of videos and reports is the “best shot” at a reasonable policy.

“The goal is to increase trust between the public and the Police Department. … There had to be some practical consideration of the need to conduct a proper investigation when it comes to the release of video … and reports for the same reason,” he said.

“Both sides of the issue are not pleased, but that’s where we came out,” said Acosta.

Translation: The mayor’s task force quickly cut a deal on how long government can keep indisputably public information secret without consulting a single advocate for the public’s right to know.

I’m talking about journalists who tirelessly fight City Hall over a blatant lack of transparency.

Reporters like Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute, who happens to be the guy who started the fight to force City Hall to make public the video showing a Chicago police officer shoot Laquan McDonald with all 16 bullets in his gun until the teenager was dead.

RELATED: Laquan McDonald Video Shows Police Shooting Him 16 Times (GRAPHIC VIDEO)

That’s the same viral video Emanuel’s administration has been accused of trying to keep secret. It’s the same viral video that caused the public uproar that inspired the mayor to create the trust-building task force in the first place.

Acosta told me that he considered asking a journalist to be part of the discussion but ultimately decided that reporters probably wouldn’t be interested.

“I can’t speak for anyone else. I did think about including reporters, but I assumed that a reporter would not want to participate and would prefer to stay more objective or not feel like they could express their opinions,” he said. “That was my thinking.”

You know what they say, there’s a reason people shouldn’t assume things … it makes “an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.'"

If Emanuel’s appointees would have included advocates for the public’s right to know on his task force, our beleaguered mayor might actually have a shot at repairing the broken trust between Chicagoans and the Police Department.

It isn’t a secret reporters are a pain in Emanuel’s mayoral backside —  swarming pests that his City Hall press office spies on and persistently attempts to manipulate. The mayor once half-jokingly told me he “hates us all equally.”

So, maybe that’s why our kind wasn’t invited to join the mayor’s alleged trust-building task force.

Luckily for Chicagoans, members of the Fourth Estate aren’t the kind of people who need an invitation to get their point across.

If Scripps Howard First Amendment Center Director Mike Farrell had been asked for his thoughts on when police videos should be released to Chicagoans, he would have bluntly told the mayor that “secrecy and good government are enemies.”

Secrets breed rumors, taint integrity and tear down the public trust that Emanuel keeps saying he’s so desperate to rebuild.

In tense times like these, it’s hard to understand why Chicago’s mayor — or the chief executive of any government — would want to hide public information for a single day.

“The Police Department is there to protect the public and enforce the law. Yes, there’s an investigation going on. But the public has the right to know what police are doing on behalf of the public. Releasing public information protects the public and the police as well,” Farrell said.

Hiding anything from public disclosure could undermine public confidence in the police.

RELATED: How Chicago Police Hope Body Cameras Will Restore the Public's Trust

"That’s a dangerous game to play," Farrell said. "When these things are hidden, people expect the worst."

Emanuel’s quick decision to back a plan to keep police videos secret for up to 90 days already has some people saying his trust-building campaign starting off on the wrong foot.

Take it from Kalven, who recently was awarded the prestigious Polk Award for his work uncovering the police misconduct and lies kept secret by the Emanuel administration.

“The transparency of public information is central to this kind of upheaval we are in the middle of. It is striking that there are no journalist organizations on the task force. I feel that is an absolutely necessary voice that is absent,” Kalven said.

“To go a degree further, this information belongs to the public. This is a matter of first principle. The question should not be one of when do you allow the public to see it. It should be whether there are exceptional circumstances to withhold it from the public,” he said.

To go further still: Keeping public information secret allows the pervasive code of silence in the Police Department to exist.

There’s no greater proof of that truth than the events that transpired after police officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald.

From the moment the 16th shot was fired, the police code of silence was mobilized.

And because of City Hall’s generations-old policy of keeping secrets, it took more than 14 months for the public to find out that some officers filed false reports to cover for the officer who unloaded his gun into a black teenager.

RELATED: In 'Crisis of Confidence,' City Council Delays Appointing Internal Watchdog

Now Emanuel has signed off on a compromise that does little more than limit the amount of time that the code of silence has to operate.

Secrets can make people expect the worst.

“Transparency is the antidote to the process of creating a false narrative,” Kalven said.

“Imagine if the video and reports in the Laquan McDonald shooting were released in 48 hours. All sorts of funky stuff that happened in the Police Department might not have occurred.”

He’s talking about how details in written police reports don’t jibe with video of the shooting captured on a police dashcam.

Jonathan Anderson, who heads the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee, said there’s little doubt withholding videos and records of police shootings for up to three months is still too long and can only breed public distrust.

Releasing information immediately, however, likely will have the opposite effect, he said.

“It can actually help police and governments be viewed the way they want to be viewed — as institutions that have credibility and look out for public safety as well as holding accountable people who commit bad acts, whether that’s a criminal or a police officer” said Anderson, an investigative reporter in Wisconsin.

I wonder if the task force folks still would argue against immediate transparency if they had considered the possible effect a policy that called for offering immediate and complete transparency might have in repairing Chicagoans' broken trust in law enforcement.

After all, the mayor did tell them to come up with policies and suggestions that build trust and restore the Police Department’s tainted integrity.

In hindsight, Acosta — the former prosecutor who took the lead on drafting the video policy — said he thinks journalists should have had seat at the task force table.

“As many perspectives as we can bring into the working group would help,” he said.

And Acosta said he’d be happy to reach out to any journalism organization interested in participating in the process.

That’s sweet and all, but there’s too much at stake for the mayor’s trust-building task force to shrug its shoulders and move on.

As Emanuel said in 2007 when he was the Democratic Caucus chairman arguing that former President George W. Bush should stop putting politics first: “It’s never to late to do the right thing.”

Clearly, the right thing is to reconsider the policy on how long the city keeps police videos secret, taking into consideration the public’s right to know.

Emanuel — and the entire City Council — should demand it.

It’s a matter of trust.

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: