Chicago Police Department introduces body camera pilot

Sarah Verschoor, Opinions Editor

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) began its trial of body cameras worn by police officers this January. Thirty officers in the Shakespeare patrol district, including the neighborhoods of Humboldt Park, Bucktown and Wicker Park, are currently testing them.

Similar studies have been conducted in Mesa, Arizona in 2013 and Rialto, California in 2012. However, Chicago’s test comes in the wake of national discussion over police-civilian interactions.

After protests in Ferguson, Missouri fueled by the police shooting of a black teenager, President Obama proposed a $75 million plan that would provide funding for 50,000 body cameras throughout the United States.

The cameras, worn on the chest of an officer, are about the size of small phone. Police officers can turn the cameras on and off, but they typically run during all interactions with civilians.

“Officers turn them on at the beginning of a shift, and they remain in standby mode,” said Sam Lehnert, Director of Marketing for Pro-Vision Video Systems. “Then, when they arrive at a call, an officer will start the camera’s filming. An indicator light will turn green, so the officer knows the camera is running.”

Pro-Vision Video Systems is a company that creates cameras for law enforcement agencies as well as cameras for commercial and transit uses.

“The cameras use both video and audio functions,” Lehnert said. “It can take video quality up to 1080p and there are customizable settings in terms of audio.”

While the CPD uses body cameras manufactured by TASER International, Lehnert said that the basic purpose of the body cameras are similar.

Changes in design and function have come about because of the increased number of law enforcement agencies using body cameras.

The design of body cameras differs between companies. The width of the lens, which affects the camera’s perspective, night vision capabilities and durability of the camera depend on the manufacturers’ various designs.

Lehnert has received feedback from officers about the importance of simplicity in the camera’s design. Officers requested that the button to start the recording was easier to access and that it was more clear if the camera was recording.

And as the technology of the cameras has evolved, the role they play in modern police work has changed as well.

“Across the country cameras are seen as a [a solution to all problems],” said Roy Bethge, Deputy Chief of Operations of the Buffalo Grove Police Department (BGPD). “Regardless of policy or technology, there are many positives and negatives to using them.”

The BGPD has two body cameras for their officers, but these officers use them for a different purpose than the CPD. After going through the police academy, an officer in training will wear one for field training to monitor his or her performance. However, they are not used after the training period for the officer ends.

“The experience using these has been overall positive for the department and the new recruits,” Bethge said.

Body camera usage can be challenging because of the legality of recording citizens in public and private. According to Bethge, Illinois has some of the most stringent eavesdropping laws in the country which limits when body cameras can be used.

Departments also consider whether or not a situation is appropriate for recording. More sensitive situations such as domestic abuse or sexual assault are not recorded, according to police department code.

Because of the strict laws, implementing body cameras and developing procedure in departments can be challenge for police.

“Everyone is talking about them,” Bethge said, in reference to the local and national debate over body camera usage.

Last month, Bethge as well as Steven Casstevens, BGPD Chief of Police, met with state congresswoman Carol Sente to discuss body camera technology.

Beyond the legal intricacies of body camera usage, they also discussed the funding of such a costly endeavor.

Bethge said that maintaining and eventually replacing body cameras could be expensive for the village. The TASER AXON body cameras the CPD uses are listed at a retail price of $399. In addition, there are costs associated with data storage whether departments use the cloud  or servers to store the footage.

Data storage of the video footage especially presents itself as an additional obstacle for body camera operation.

“With 64 police officers in the BGPD, that would mean terabytes of data to sort and store,” Bethge said.

While body cameras present complexities, some civilians feel they will have a positive impact on our communities, including Jack Buttacavoli ’15.

“It is a good idea to monitor [police officers] to see if they are doing their job, but at the same time, monitor suspected criminals,” Buttacavoli said. “It is good for the protection of the officer and the people.”

Buttacavoli uses the example of when people are pulled over for speeding. He said that many fear the police because of potential consequences or risks in the interaction, but said that if routine situations like that were monitored by a camera, people would feel more safe.

Within Stevenson, security guard Dorice Benedetto believes the safety of students and faculty is a key priority.

Benedetto said that she and the security team are always on top of security issues, along with the administration.

While at the moment Stevenson has no intentions of using body cameras or like technology, seeing as there are surveillance cameras installed around the building, Benedetto said members of the Stevenson administration are frequently attending conferences to learn about innovative school security practices.

Regardless of the use for the cameras, the perspective of law enforcement may differ from that of civilians.

“Cameras can capture the situation, but they lack the experience and training an officer does,” Bethge said.

Studies across the country have revealed the positive impact of body cameras, citing a correlation between the use of body cameras and a decrease in civilian complaints against the departments in Mesa and Rialto.

However, many are uncertain regarding the useage of body cameras in terms of legal policies, officer training, citizen’s rights and program funding.

“The jury is still out on whether or not body cameras are the right choice for police officers,” Bethge said.