Editorial: Police body camera program can’t roll out fast enough

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A memorial for Paul O’Neal, the teenager shot and killed by Chicago police officers, was created on the base of a tree on South Merrill Avenue in South Shore. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

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Last week, after 18-year-old Paul O’Neal was fatally shot by a police officer, a lawyer for the teen’s family said it was frustrating that not one police body camera captured the shooting.

If O’Neal’s shooting was an act of unconscionable “street justice,” the lawyer said, a body camera might have revealed “the truth.”

We should all be frustrated, cops and citizens alike. Body cameras can be an effective tool both in holding the police accountable and protecting them against false accusations, as other cities have found. The very presence of a body camera tends to encourage everybody involved in a police encounter — cops included — to behave better.

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Yet Chicago continues a relatively slow and careful roll-out of its body cameras program, and officers may be demonstrating a reluctance to use the cameras. Or maybe — and this is quite possible —officers are still just getting the hang of the cameras. What is certain is that the Chicago Police Department, struggling to shed an image of routinely violating civil liberties and resorting to deadly force without cause, can’t get there soon enough. Every time an officer shoots anybody while his or her body camera is turned off, doubts will be raised, even when the shooting is justified.

As it happens, police dashcam and body cam video caught much of the police encounter with O’Neal, who was shot last Thursday evening in the South Shore neighorhood after he crashed a stolen Jaguar into two police vehicles. The video shows one officer firing his weapon. But the body camera on the officer who fatally shot O’Neal was not on, so there is no video of that moment.

Supt. Eddie Johnson quickly stripped all three officers involved of their police powers and put them on paid administrative duties, pending a full investigation, which is laudable. The department has a miserable history of failing to take such quick and decisive disciplinary action.

Body cameras are no cure-all for the sour relations between the Chicago Police and many Chicagoans, especially minorities. But they can make a difference, and the best and smartest cops should welcome them. A 2014 Department of Justice report pointed to the police department in Rialto, California, which saw a 60 percent drop in the use of deadly force by police officers who wore body cams. And police officers who wore body cams in Mesa, Arizona, were the subject of only a third as many citizens complaints as officers who did not.

Body cameras have resulted in criminal charges against officers, but they also have saved officers’ careers. In Cleveland last year, a grand jury declined to charge four officers involved in a fatal shooting after viewing a body cam video and concluding the shooting was justified.

The sooner Chicago fully implements its body camera program, the better it will be for everybody on both sides of that thin blue line.

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