Unraveling the mystery of missing videos in the death of Harith Augustus

How did three videos of a high-profile, fatal Chicago police shooting remain missing for more than a year? We still don’t know.

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Protests Continue After Police Fatally Shoot Chicago Resident

Demonstrators confront police in South Shore a day after the fatal police shooting of Harith Augustus on July 14, 2018.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Aug. 16, 2018, 18 videos of the fatal police shooting of Harith Augustus were released to the public.

That’s everything, said a lawyer for the city, that’s all there is. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability and the Chicago Police Department, the lawyer said, had no more video evidence of the fatal shooting that had rocked Chicago a month earlier.

Except, as it turns out, that wasn’t true.

And it has taken more than a year for the full truth to come out.

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Three more videos of the July 14, 2018, shooting have been found in recent weeks, as reported recently by journalist Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute in a series of stories for the online investigative news outlet The Intercept.

You might well wonder, as we now do, if even more video might turn up.

How in heaven’s name do three videos of a high-profile, fatal police shooting remain hidden from the public for more than a year, turning up only when an investigative reporter starts asking questions?

There is no evidence that any of the videos were deliberately kept under wraps by COPA. The agency says it just made a huge managerial mistake — suspiciously making that mistake more than once.

But a massive screw-up by Chicago’s police oversight body, in a fatal police shooting that sparked several days of often violent protests, is as troubling as any intentional wrongdoing.

COPA has zero room for mistakes on this front. Chicagoans must be able to trust that it will properly handle — and publicly disclose, when the law or good policy requires it — all of the evidence in cases of alleged police misconduct, especially a fatal police shooting.

Video evidence in particular.

It’s important to remember, as a matter of context, that at the time Augustus was shot the city was tensely awaiting the trial of the officer accused in the infamous shooting of Laquan McDonald. A judge had to force the city to release the video of that shooting.

The McDonald case led the former Chicago Police Accountability Task Force to create a new rule that all audio and video recordings of police-involved shootings and deaths in police custody must be released within 60 days.

COPA, we thought, was following the new rule to a ‘T’ when it released 18 videos just a month after Augustus was killed.

But then another police dashcam video was found and released on Aug. 30 of this year. Kalven had made repeated Freedom of Information Act requests for it, knowing it had to be somewhere. As he wrote for The Intercept: “Police records indicate that the dashcam footage was retrieved and secured on the day of the incident.”

So where was the video? We still don’t know.

And then last week, on Sept. 26, COPA issued a statement acknowledging that two additional videos had been found. These two videos, from closed circuit cameras mounted on a business near the shooting, had been “mislabeled and lost track of,” COPA said.

COPA has suffered from a revolving door of investigators; more than 40 have resigned since January 2018. As Kalven writes, that turnover “clearly contributed to the investigative lapses in this case.”

COPA is guilty, at minimum, of shoddy work and poor management. The agency and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office both have issued statements vowing “nothing but full compliance going forward” with the video release policy.

We would like to believe that. Because Chicago cannot afford any further erosion of the fragile trust, especially in the African American community, between the Chicago police and the people they are sworn to serve and protect.

Without that trust, nobody will talk to the cops. When nobody talks to the cops, crimes go unsolved. When crimes go unsolved, people say the cops are useless.

That essential trust erodes even more, and nobody wins except the criminals.

The rookie officer’s shooting of Augustus continues to be investigated. Augustus was carrying a gun in the waistband of his pants when he was shot; he had a firearm owner’s identification card but not a concealed carry permit.

In Kalven’s view, though, there’s more to it than that.

“There is a great deal to unpack in this incident with respect to training, implicit bias, body camera protocols, use of force, deescalation, enforcement of concealed carry regulations and the exercise of common sense,” he wrote. “The critical point, though, is that it was not criminal activity by Augustus, but aggressive and inept policing that produced the split second in which an officer responded with deadly force.”

Would you agree or disagree? Based on what evidence?

The more we can see the evidence for ourselves in such difficult cases — beginning with all video recordings — the more we can judge, honestly and fairly, for ourselves.

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