CHICAGO – The video is graphic, according to some who have seen it: A black teenager wielding a small knife is walking away from Chicago police officers when an officer opens fire, shooting the teen 16 times.
Police have refused to release footage of the October 2014 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, but a judge may order them to do so Thursday in response to a journalist's public records request.
Investigators have said McDonald refused to drop a knife when officers confronted him while responding to a call about a person walking down a street with a knife on the city's southwest side. The shooting was recorded on police dashcam video, but city attorneys said it wouldn't be released until a federal grand jury finishes its investigation of the shooting.
McDonald's mother also doesn't want the video released. She fears it could lead to violent protests like those in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, after police-involved deaths of black residents in those cities, according to the family's attorney, Jeffrey Neslund.
Neslund, who has seen the video, said the footage shows McDonald was armed with a small knife. But he said it also clearly shows that the teen was walking away from police officers when a white officer, who was about 15 feet away, opened fire.
"You see the officer begin to shoot, and he (McDonald) spins and falls to the ground," he said. Neslund said the officer then "continues to shoot him."
The Chicago City Council took the unusual step in April of approving a $5 million settlement with McDonald's family, even though the family hadn't filed a lawsuit, after being advised to do so by a city attorney who had seen the video.
An autopsy report showed that McDonald was shot 16 times, including at least twice in his back. The report also said PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, was found in McDonald's system.
Police have said the officer who shot McDonald had been stripped of his police powers and assigned to desk duty. Police have released few details about the shooting, citing the ongoing investigation, but the city's attorney has said McDonald was walking away from police when he was shot.
Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama has told attorneys he would announce his decision Thursday, though his decision is expected to be appealed by either the city or the freelance journalist who filed a public records request seeking the video, Brandon Smith.
After reviewing Smith's request, Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office asked police in a strongly worded letter earlier this month to release the video. The letter said the police department was using "unsubstantiated" claims in arguing that releasing the footage would hinder an investigation or deprive anyone of a fair trial. The letter said police had no legal right to withhold the video because another agency, the Independent Police Review Authority, was conducting the investigation.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi declined to comment Wednesday when asked about Thursday's hearing.
The city's law department spokesman, Bill McCaffrey, reiterated on Wednesday that the city plans to release the video once a federal grand jury investigation concludes. But until then, "we do not want to do anything that might interfere with the ongoing investigation," he said.