Years after a police SUV rolled over a 15-year-old girl during George Floyd protests, Chicago Police footage is missing as a civil case proceeds

Tribune Content Agency

As protests over the murder of George Floyd roiled the city on May 31, 2020, Astarte Washington, then 15, and her brother were trying to get from their grandmother’s house to their Roseland home on foot because the unrest had shut down the bus route.

Police ordered the teens to the ground and Washington complied, so afraid of being shot that she remained still, her mother said, even as a Chicago police squad car rolled over her body, seriously injuring her.

Nearly at the three-year anniversary of the protests, Astarte Washington, now 18, still has marks on her body from the squad car, her mother said. She struggles with trauma. The family is suing the city and the Chicago Police Department, with the case now at a key moment as the parties are nearly ready to set a trial date, likely for later this year.

But the city has not turned over Police Department footage from officer body-worn cameras for a crucial stretch of time when officers were tending to Washington after she was injured by the car, according to court records.

The city has refused in court filings to admit whether the footage exists, raising questions about the department’s practices around creating and storing body-camera footage, a key reform tool meant as an accountability measure for police officers.

The court battle over the production of the footage comes on the heels of a recommendation by the Office of Inspector General that the Chicago Police Department improve storage and labeling of footage. In a review of disciplinary investigations, the office found that the Police Department had mislabeled footage, compromising its ability to locate it, to the “detriment of accused CPD members, complainants, and victims, and to the integrity of the City’s police accountability system as a whole.”

The city’s Law Department did not respond to a request for comment.

“The public should be aware they are not following the rules when it comes to these body-worn cameras because God forbid this happens to an individual in a shooting case or a death case,” said Washington’s attorney, Robert Fakhouri. “We still have issues so many years later, after the consent decree was issued, after all of these efforts were made on police accountability.”

Six days after the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd, Astarte Washington and her brother, with the bus out of service, began the more-than-3-mile walk to their Roseland home, taking them through protests around 111th Street and South Michigan Avenue, according to the complaint.

Chicago police officers ordered people to get to the ground, and as others began to run away, Astarte and her brother complied, the lawsuit said, even when a police Ford Explorer that was not put into park rolled over Washington, first the front tires and then the back tires.

Tawana Washington, Astarte’s mother, said she got a frantic call from her son, who screamed that his sister had been run over.

“He said he don’t know if she was living or not,” Tawana Washington said, growing tearful.

The mother raced first to the scene, and then to the hospital, where Astarte spent two days being treated, she said.

In the years since, Astarte has suffered from mental health issues related to what happened, her mother said. She’s less talkative and retreats to her room.

“It’s up and down,” Tawana Washington said. “Sometimes she’s good, sometimes she’s just in the dark.”

Surveillance video from a nearby bank shows the police vehicle barreling backward, with officers putting their hands out against it and then ducking out of the way.

Fakhouri also secured dash-camera video that shows, with no audio, five officers attending to Astarte after the rollover.

After attempts by the defense to procure the footage from those officers, though, the city said in a court filing: “After a reasonable and thorough investigation, the city of Chicago was unable to confirm or deny whether such footage existed.”

“That’s critical evidence. If we don’t know what it is and what’s being said, that holds us back from getting the justice we deserve,” Fakhouri said.

Chicago police officers began wearing body cameras in 2015 as part of a pilot program that was later expanded to all 22 police districts, a measure that gained support after the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald by then-Officer Jason Van Dyke, captured by a squad car camera. Advocates for use of body cameras point out that the transparency it brings can protect officers as well as community members.

In Illinois, every police officer in the state will be required to wear a body camera by 2025, under sweeping criminal justice changes put into place by the SAFE-T Act.

The city’s apparent inability to turn over body-camera footage for time periods relevant to the Astarte Washington case, though, showcases holes in the accountability measure.

By general order, Chicago police officers are required to activate their cameras to “electronically record all law-enforcement related activities using the (body worn camera) while on-duty,” except with limited exceptions, such as when in a courthouse or correctional facility or talking with a confidential informant.

Because the city could not confirm whether it has possession of footage, it’s not clear whether the officers who responded to the aftermath of the rollover turned on the cameras, Fakhouri said, or whether the city lost or destroyed it.

A city inspector general recommendation issued on May 12 points to flaws in the way the Police Department stores the footage, noting that investigators “encountered instances in which footage captured by CPD members’ body worn cameras … was mislabeled in the web based repository in which it is stored.”

The city did turn over body-camera footage from officers who attended to Washington, but for different time periods, Fakhouri said, adding that what was turned over wasn’t relevant to the case.

Fakhouri has asked a judge to allow him to tell a jury about the city’s failure to produce the video. He filed a motion that says a Chicago police lieutenant testified that the city can “search by name, by date and times” to locate footage, meaning the city should have the ability to pull it if it exists.

The parties will argue the issue in July.

Astarte Washington has joined the basketball team at Carver Military Academy, where she is a senior. She wants to go to college, though only close to home, her mother said. She has a uniform jacket with regalia showing her strong grades and achievements in high school.

“The girl is an absolute rock star,” Fakhouri said.

A settlement or award in the lawsuit would allow Astarte to get better treatment and have a better life, Tawana Washington said.

Washington said her daughter doesn’t want anyone to see her as a victim. Her daughter doesn’t like to talk or be reminded about the day she was hurt.

“She don’t want nobody to feel sorry for her,” Washington said. “She push herself to do all types of stuff, but the point is she gets too sad.”