CHICAGO — There's often little consistency in U.S. cities' policies on how quickly to release videos of police officers shooting civilians under disputed circumstances, with many municipalities making decisions as they go or waiting to act until political pressure or court rulings force the issue.
As a result, contested videos can emerge within days, months, years — or never. A long wait often invites accusations that city leaders and police are seeking to hide some wrongdoing or endeavoring to cover something up.
This week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he's setting up a task force to examine his city's video-release policy, among other issues, amid public and political outcry over white Officer Jason Van Dyke's shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014. For more than a year, the city actively delayed releasing police dash-cam footage of the officer continuing to fire even as McDonald crumpled to the ground.
Cities' policies are all over the map. Many don't have any clearly identifiable policy in writing, including Chicago, which has a reputation for dragging its feet. Sometimes, civilian cellphone video plays a role in prodding a city to release its own police video, as happened in North Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this year.
In Seattle, nearly all police video is posted online almost immediately, though special software blurs the images and a video with clear images must be requested.
All sides need to figure out the best policies "very quickly," especially because police dashcams and body cameras will become more ubiquitous, says Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
"People will fill the void with something if they don't see the videos — with speculation or rumors," added Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle-based attorney and staunch advocate of government transparency. "If police want people to understand (their) side of the story, (they) gotta get the images out."
The debate over the release of videos typically lines up around the U.S. as such: Police and prosecutors argue they should be withheld until the conclusion of investigations into whether the shootings were justified, while transparency advocates, journalists and activists say the public has a right to see the footage immediately.
For years, Chicago has fought hard in the courts, saying the release of videos would jeopardize active investigations. Emanuel and others used that argument in the McDonald case before a judge ordered the video's release; Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder the day the video was made public.
Public pressure now may be forcing a change in the city's approach. Emanuel announced Thursday that video in a separate case — the October 2014 police shooting of 25-year-old Ronald Johnson — will be released next week, even as prosecutors investigate possible criminal charges.
Many times, the disagreements land in court.
In the McDonald case, a Cook County judge sided with a freelance journalist who had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the video. The judge rejected the city's contention, made before Van Dyke was charged, that releasing the video could lead to an unfair trial "in the court of public opinion." He also said the city could not withhold the video because state and federal agencies were investigating an incident — not the city police department itself.
Going back to the 1990s, many departments across the country started extending the time they withheld videos. But Earl-Hubbard said judges have pushed back recently, insisting that city officials specify precisely how a video release could impede an investigation.
"Judges are saying, 'If you can't prove clearly you can't investigate if the video's released, then you can't keep it secret,'" she said.
Among other examples of how cities have dealt with contested videos:
— Hummelstown, Pennsylvania: Video from police officer Lisa Mearkle's stun gun was released after she was acquitted last month of third-degree murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter after shooting an unarmed man twice in the back as he laid face-down in the snow. Officials declined to publicly release the video until it was shown at trial.
— Fairfax, Virginia: Records in the March 2013 police shooting death of John Geer — including the officer's name — were released 17 months later in response to a judge's order in a lawsuit. The records include police video but not of the actual shooting.
— North Charleston, South Carolina: In April, the public viewing of a bystander's cellphone video prompted police in North Charleston, South Carolina, to release a dashcam video of white officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott, an unarmed black man. Slager has been charged with murder and is awaiting a trial date.
— Cincinnati: Media organizations sued Hamilton County, Ohio, prosecutor Joseph Deters after he refused to release body-camera video from the fatal shooting of a black motorist in a traffic stop by a white University of Cincinnati officer in July. He released the video 10 days after the shooting when he announced he was indicting Officer Ray Tensing, who has pleaded not guilty to murder and voluntary manslaughter.