POLICEHow Chicago Became an Unlikely Leader in Body-Camera Transparency

By Eric Umansky

Published 26 January 2024

The city has a long history of brutal, violent policing, but its latest approach to body-worn cameras and police oversight could serve as a national model.

A decade ago, the Chicago Police Department drew national outrage after an officer shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Officials had refused to disclose footage of the murder while officers worked to cover it up. But the fallout from the case has also led to a lesser-known and surprising outcome: The city is now a leader in using body-camera footage to deliver transparency.

Notably, an independent accountability office — not the police department — decides what footage from police shootings and other serious incidents is released to the public. That seemingly straightforward setup, the product of the city’s policing reforms, appears to put Chicago in a league of its own.

“I’m not aware of any other civilian agency that does what Chicago does on releasing video,” said Florence Finkle, vice president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. “Transparency is key to accountability.”

As ProPublica reported last month, police departments across the country have been left in sole control of the video from body-worn cameras, a power that has enabled them to undermine the promise of the technology to bring transparency and accountability. The departments have frequently kept footage from public view — and even from civilian investigators, who can find themselves hamstrung without key evidence in a case. In New York, for example, a disciplinary case against officers involved in the killing of a man in crisis recently collapsed after the NYPD withheld footage of the incident for more than a year.

Chicago, of course, has a long history of brutalviolent policing — abuse that’s often been accompanied by a code of silence.

After the McDonald shooting in October 2014, the police initially reported that he had lunged at officers with a knife. But then a whistleblower reached out to a local law professor. “They told me there’s video and it’s being covered up,” recalled University of Chicago’s Craig Futterman, who pushed for the release of the dashcam footage. The city, under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, refused. A year after the shooting, a judge finally forced the city’s hand, and Chicagoans saw for themselves that McDonald had been walking away from officers when he was shot 16 times. As he lay on the road bleeding, a knife lay beside him, folded.