With the investigation into the police shooting of Laquan McDonald continuing to stir up controversy in Chicago, Illinois lawmakers are pushing to drastically increase public access to video footage of officer-involved shootings and deaths statewide.
Last week, the Legislature took up a bill introduced by Rep. Arthur Turner that would amend the state’s Freedom of Information Act to ensure that footage of the deadly incidents collected by law enforcement body cameras and dashboard cameras would be open by default.
Currently, local and state police, as well as sheriff’s offices, have five days to decide whether to approve public records requests for the videos. Turner’s bill would leave it up to a judge instead, requiring the agency to prove in an “expedited hearing” that those exemptions apply and the video should be kept confidential.
Turner told StateScoop that he intended the bill as a direct response to the McDonald case, where only a journalist’s lawsuit prompted the release of video of the incident, a full 13 months after the shooting took place.
“It’s about transparency and restoring public trust in our judicial system and in the police,” Turner said. “It’s just injecting a judge into the process, and I believe that will make community members more comfortable, it makes prosecutors and lawyers in the case more comfortable.”
To hammer out the details of the bill, Turner said he worked with Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office before he pre-filed it last month. Since then, he noted that it’s attracted bipartisan support in the Legislature, and earned high marks from a variety of state’s attorneys he’s spoken with about the measure.
“For them, it’s all about making sure that, if there’s an ongoing investigation happening, that we’re not doing anything to the detriment of whoever’s involved in the case or the case itself,” Turner said.
After the extreme measures required for the release of the McDonald video, open government advocates believe the bill is a crucial step for the state.
“The bill would do away with a ton of the stalling and delay tactics that public bodies oftentimes use to avoid releasing information in a timely manner,” said Josh Sharp, director of government relations for the Illinois Press Association.
But Dominic D’Ambrosio — deputy chief of operations for the Oak Forest, Illinois, police department — sees some problems with the bill. As a law enforcement leader in a Chicago suburb, he said he appreciates the need for anything that generates “deeper trust from the citizenry,” but worries that the law lacks specificity.
“How do we exactly logistically manage this type of law?” D’Ambrosio said. “So often, we just see lawmakers having the right intent in putting the right concept into place, but there’s so many variables.”
Specifically, he wonders how quickly law enforcement agencies will have to make these videos available if they aren’t exempt from disclosure, and what kind of costs will be associated with the process. If an agency does want a hearing, D’Ambrosio warned that the process may put even more strain on the state’s swamped court systems.
Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor currently working as a defense attorney at the Chicago firm Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, P.C., worries less about the bill’s logistical challenges and more about its legal implications.
“For a couple hundred years we’ve been trying to make trials fairer and cases fairer, and one of the ways we do that is not by throwing evidence out there willy-nilly,” Cotter said.
Cotter said he thinks that speeding the release of the footage could prejudice the public against either the police officer involved in the incident or the victim ahead of any trial, and cautioned that video evidence isn’t as definitive as it may appear.
“Video is a tool,” Cotter said. “It is one type of evidence, it’s not the only piece of evidence, it’s not even always the best piece of evidence.”
Additionally, Cotter worries judges may be forced to make decisions on the videos based simply on “undeveloped information” about the case. By contrast, Mark McBride, a veteran criminal defense attorney, is concerned that judges might be overly inclined to rule in favor of shielding the footage.
“The moral arc of judging favors the state,” McBride said.
Should the bill become law, D’Ambrosio also wonders if the public could accept a court’s ruling to keep the footage confidential.
“Maybe there’s a reason why it was denied in court,” D’Ambrosio said. “From the media side, would that be an acceptable response?”
However, the bill has plenty of hurdles to clear before those questions come to the fore. The legislative analytics company FiscalNote estimates that the bill has an 81 percent chance of passing if it comes to a vote, but because the bill’s sponsors lack committee influence, it has just a 5.9 percent chance of ever making to the floor.
Nevertheless, Turner feels a “sense of urgency” around the issue will help the bill’s chances.
“We want to maintain our integrity of our judicial system,” Turner said. “So I think people will be able to support it.”
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