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CPD’s top cop to wear body cam as video totals lag other cities

A Chicago police officer shows a body camera last year. | Frank Main/Sun-Times Media

Chicago’s top cop plans to start wearing a body camera Monday as part of a 15-month pilot program that has so far produced substantially fewer videos per officer than in several other big cities.

Interim Police Supt. Eddie Johnson has pledged to wear a body camera, along with his command staff, to “demonstrate our commitment to rebuilding trust with the residents we’re sworn to serve.”

“They play an important role in not just fighting crime, but also in learning from actual encounters with the public,” he said in a statement.

The department launched its pilot program in January 2015 in the Shakespeare District on the Northwest Side. Thirty officers have been testing the cameras. Those officers made an average of 16 videos a month, compared with an average of 60 videos a month per officer during a pilot program in Seattle and 80 videos a month per officer in New Orleans, where virtually every cop wears one, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis found.

Chicago Police Department policy requires officers with body cameras to keep them on a “buffering mode” during their entire tour of duty. That means the camera is turned on, but not recording. But officers in the pilot program in the Shakespeare District were not required to follow that policy all the time, CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

“It was a technical and usage analysis,” he said. “We were running a limited pilot, not requiring officers to turn them on at all times.”

That’s why the Chicago Police officers have recorded fewer videos on average than other cities, Guglielmi said.

Starting this spring and throughout the summer, the department will expand its pilot program to six other police districts — Austin, Wentworth, Deering, Ogden, South Chicago and Gresham. About 450 body cameras are being shipped to Chicago this week, officials said.

“We are expecting more video in the expanded pilot,” Guglielmi said.

According to the police department, body cameras are beneficial in “evidence gathering, promoting civility and restraint, and improving officer performance by demonstrating real-life scenarios during training.”

But unlike other cities, the Chicago Police Department’s body camera videos have been rarely used, if at all, in court as evidence in criminal cases, Guglielmi said.

“As of right now CPD has received several requests by prosecutors for footage. However, we cannot confirm whether or not they have been used during trial,” he said.

“We expect that footage from these devices will play a larger role as evidence in criminal cases and reducing the number of complaints that have been filed against officers as their use becomes more widespread,” Guglielmi said, adding, “We certainly are hopeful that it will strengthen cases as we get more acclimated to using them. Officers will use them in their conversations with prosecutors.”

Still, Chicago Police officials say the department’s body cameras appear to have met one of their biggest goals: reducing complaints against officers.

“To date, there have been no complaints against officers wearing the devices,” Guglielmi said.

In Chicago, officers in the Shakespeare District have produced about 7,350 videos over the past 15 months — about 16 a month per officer, on average.

Seattle conducted a six-month pilot program with 12 officers, who created more than 4,330 videos, said Detective Patrick Michaud, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department. That’s about 60 videos per month per officer, almost four times as many as in the Chicago Police Department’s pilot program.

In New Orleans, a recent audit showed that patrol officers and officers in the police department’s special operations division averaged about 80 videos a month per officer, said Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department.

New Orleans requires officers to record body camera video for “all field contacts involving law enforcement activity, including all calls for service,” Gamble said.

New Orleans was among the first departments in the country to equip its cops with body cameras. Prosecutors have direct access to the videos.

They’re a training tool, and have helped the department in “exonerating officers when no incident occurred, and holding them accountable when they violate policy,” Gamble said.

Chicago Police officers wearing body cameras are required to record routine calls for service, investigatory stops, traffic stops, foot and vehicle pursuits, emergency driving situations, search warrants and other situations like the “processing of an uncooperative arrestee,” according to the department’s rules.

In another police initiative, starting on June 1, every officer responding to a call for service will be equipped with a Taser, officials said.

The Laquan McDonald case prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to expand the police department’s use of body cameras and Tasers.

In October 2014, cops were on the South Side waiting for a supervisor to show up with a Taser when Officer Jason Van Dyke jumped out of his vehicle and fatally shot the 17-year-old McDonald, who was holding a knife. A dash-camera video released in November showed Van Dyke firing 16 shots into McDonald while he was walking away from the officer and after he fell down. Van Dyke has been charged with murder.

In February, City Hall announced a $10 million contract with Taser International to supply additional body cameras and Taser electroshock weapons to the department.

“With Interim Superintendent Eddie Johnson leading the police department in wearing one, body cameras represent an important step forward as the work of restoring trust and accountability in the department continues,” Emanuel said in a statement.

“They play an important role in not just fighting crime, but also in learning from actual encounters with the public,” Johnson added.

Other cities have reported seeing complaints against officers decline when they wear body cameras.

A 2014 U.S. Department of Justice report pointed to the police department in Rialto, California, which saw a 60 percent drop in use of force incidents among cops with body cams; and the department in Mesa, Arizona, which saw three times as many complaints against officers without the cameras.

In Phoenix, an officer was fired after a camera captured repeated incidents of unprofessional conduct, the report said. Body cameras have also led to criminal charges against officers accused of misconduct in fatal shootings. But last year in Cleveland, body cameras helped save four officers’ jobs after a grand jury viewed a video of a fatal police shooting, and found it was justified.