CPD should not be able to ditch body cams

In the third fatal shooting this year by Chicago Police Department officers, a 16-year-old boy was shot in the chest April 11 during a chase in which he was suspected of driving a car involved in a shooting earlier the same day, according to an April 13 Chicago Tribune article.

A video posted to Facebook by someone in the neighborhood at the time of the shooting showed officers gathering around the boy and shining flashlights around the area but does not capture the actual shooting.

In this instance, body camera footage would have been more reliable than the video or any eyewitness or officer testimony.

Police departments nationwide are facing a loss of public trust as frequent scandals and alleged police brutality are finally held up to public scrutiny. Having police officers wear body cameras is an important means for restoring that trust.

The CPD launched a pilot program for body camera usage in January 2015 with 30 officers in the Shakespeare District on the Northwest Side. The department is set to expand the program with 450 additional cameras in the Austin, Wentworth, Deering, Ogden, South Chicago and Gresham police districts during the spring and summer, according to an April 9 Chicago Sun-Times article.

The pilot program should have benefited the CPD, but it has since proven to be a misstep rather than a positive stride forward.

Since January 2015, the program has averaged 16 videos per officer per month. Comparable pilot programs like those in New Orleans and Seattle have averaged 60–80 videos per officer per month, according to the Sun-Times article.

The CPD’s policies on body cameras require officers to keep the cameras on and in a “buffering mode” during their entire shifts. The policy also requires that officers record routine calls for service, investigative stops, traffic stops, foot and vehicle pursuits, emergency driving situations, exercise of search warrants, and other situations such as the “processing of an uncooperative arrestee,” according to the Sun-Times article.

While officers in the pilot program are only producing 16 videos per month on average, it is unlikely that is because they are only encountering 16 of the situations listed by the department. A more likely explanation for the lack of videos is that officers were not required to keep their cameras on at all times, according to the Sun-Times.

If CPD officers did not have to keep the cameras on, the lack of videos from officers is not surprising. Additionally, if the department’s regulations are not being followed during a pilot program, it makes the program seem more symbolic than anything else.

The city’s new police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, said in an April 9 press release that he will wear a body camera. 

CPD is vocalizing a commitment to using body cameras but is demonstrating little action, and the use of body cameras by the department is likely a publicity move.

A pilot program is pointless if it does not implement regulations that would be followed if the program is officially rolled out. It’s not simulating actual conditions or yielding useful information needed to implement the program in the future.

CPD should also consider that the effective use of body cameras could benefit officers. When officers are wrongly accused of crimes, video footage is likely to help their defense than eyewitness testimony.

At this point, the best idea is to bring in a third party to administer the program. A third party, such as a private company like the one that provides the cameras or a federal agency could more effectively hold officers accountable for failure to use the body cams than the department could.