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Chicago cops go slowly with body cameras, but results promising

The Chicago Police Department’s body-camera pilot program remains stuck in a Northwest Side district after nearly a year of testing, but authorities say the results are promising — including no citizen complaints against the officers using the devices.

In January, the city began testing 30 body cameras in the Shakespeare District, which covers the Humboldt Park, West Town and Logan Square neighborhoods.

The Chicago Police Department plans to expand the pilot program to a second police district with different demographics, but not until at least January, said Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman.

The department is testing systems from two vendors, including a body camera that officers can also mount in their cars, Guglielmi said.

“Initially, we have gotten some very positive results from our pilot,” he said.

The Independent Police Review Authority, which processes complaints against officers, hasn’t received any complaints against officers wearing body cameras in the pilot program, said Scott Ando, chief administrator of the agency.

Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said he wasn’t surprised by that.

“People behave differently when they are on camera,” he said, pointing to a 2012 study in Rialto, Calif., that found complaints against cops wearing body cameras dropped almost 90 percent.

The department has been using in-car video systems since 2012. It was such a dashboard camera that captured Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting a knife-wielding teenager, Laquan McDonald, 16 times in 2014, prompting Cook County prosecutors to charge the officer with murder on Tuesday. The video should have been accompanied by audio but wasn’t.

City Inspector General Joe Ferguson, in his audit plan for 2016 issued this week, said he will conduct an audit of Chicago Police dashboard cameras to determine if the department is “effectively managing and maintaining” them. ”OIG has been alerted to potential issues with CPD’s management of its dashboard cameras, including inoperable cameras, lack of routine maintenance and lack of proper footage archives,” he wrote.

The Obama administration has been pushing for police departments to adopt body cameras as another tool to strengthen the oversight of their officers. The U.S. Justice Department recently authorized a $1 million grant for Chicago to buy the devices.

Earlier this year, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law governing the use of body cameras and approved a $5 charge on traffic tickets to help local police departments pay for them.

The Chicago Police Department has applied for a state grant to buy body cameras, Guglielmi said. One of the biggest costs is data storage, he noted.

The department’s own regulations on body cameras say they can bolster criminal prosecutions and protect officers from false accusations. The public can also use them as evidence of police misconduct.

“In many cases, they add additional insight into encounters,” Guglielmi said.

Yohnka said he wasn’t bothered with the slow pace of Chicago’s rollout of body cameras, noting that police agencies across the country are having the same experience.

“We’re just at the front end of the wave,” he said.

“From our perspective, we have always thought that the more of this sort of objective record that one has, the closer we are to getting real oversight and transparency about the way in which police officers interact with civilians,” Yohnka said. “More of this video is better.”

In New Orleans, where persistent problems with corruption and brutality have landed the police department under federal court oversight, nearly all patrol officers have been outfitted with body cameras for more than a year.

Officers are supposed to activate the cameras when responding to calls for service or when interacting with the public, though early reports by federal monitors last year pointed out problems with officers not consistently turning on the devices, as well as problems with storing and cataloging the massive amount of video.

In one noteworthy incident, an officer failed to turn on her camera during a traffic stop in which she shot the driver — a man with whom she’d had an on-duty scuffle the day before.

New Orleans police brass and union leaders have said that camera footage has nearly always vindicated officers in encounters that have led to misconduct complaints from residents.

Contributing: Fran Spielman and Andy Grimm