Former suburban cop hopes to cash in on new body-camera law in Illinois

Under the new law, every officer in Chicago, the Cook County sheriff’s office and sheriff’s offices in the collar counties will be required to wear a body camera by January 2022.

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Ben Laird, owner of Frontline Public Safety Solutions, which sells police-related software, including a system that analyzed body-camera video. He retired from the River Forest Police Department in 2018.

Ben Laird, owner of Frontline Public Safety Solutions, which sells police-related software, including a system that analyzed body-camera video. He retired from the River Forest police department in 2018.

River Forest Police Department

A former suburban cop aims to capitalize on a new Illinois justice reform law that will require every officer in the state to have a body camera by 2025.

Ben Laird retired about three years ago as a River Forest police detective. Now, Laird, who has an MBA and a college degree in information services, runs Frontline Public Safety Solutions, which sells software to police departments around the country — including its latest product, a computer platform for police supervisors to audit body-camera footage.

Dozens of suburban Chicago departments have signed up, according to Laird, who says his system lets them see which officers need training or discipline.

“It’s an early-warning sign to let supervisors know when an officer is turning off his camera,” he says.

Under the new Illinois law, every officer in Chicago, the Cook County sheriff’s office and the sheriff’s offices in the collar counties will be required to wear a body camera by January 2022.

Cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 — including Aurora, Elgin, Joliet, Naperville, Peoria, Rockford and Springfield — will have to meet a 2023 deadline. The deadline is 2025 for most of the other police agencies in Illinois, including the Illinois State Police.

The biggest agency to buy Laird’s software is the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, which agreed to pay more than $15,000 annually, he says.

His pitch is that the system could bring down premiums for municipalities by limiting their exposure to lawsuits.

The auditing software asks supervisors a short list of questions about the videos they review. Among them: whether the officer’s interaction with a person was free of bias, whether the cop was courteous and if the incident was handled properly or the officer should go through training because of policy violations.

The system shows how many audits have been performed randomly over a certain period and how many were done for a specific reason, such as a use of force. It can give pass-fail rates and identify cops with the lowest scores.

Laird says lots of departments with body cameras have been using spreadsheets to audit their body-cam videos. Frontline’s “dashboard” system takes less time to use, he says, and it’s easier to analyze the data.

The city’s inspector general says only 18% of arrests during the civil unrest in late May and early June in Chicago were documented by body-camera videos. Here, a man is taken into custody in June 2020 as officers clash with hundreds of protesters outside a looted store near East 71st Street and South Chappel Avenue.

The city’s inspector general says only 18% of arrests during the civil unrest in late May and early June in Chicago were documented by body-camera videos. Here, a man is taken into custody in June 2020 as officers clash with hundreds of protesters outside a looted store near East 71st Street and South Chappel Avenue.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Chicago has about 8,000 body-worn cameras for its roughly 12,000 officers. Patrol officers in Chicago are equipped with body cameras, but some specialized units don’t have them.

Police lieutenants in the city’s 22 patrol districts are supposed to review one randomly selected body-camera video on each shift. If an officer uses force, supervisors are required to review those videos. When possible, they’re also supposed to review videos before approving arrests.

The department says its body-camera audits are “paper-based,” but “there are efforts to transition this into an electronic system as part of the department’s consent-decree compliance efforts.”

Since body cameras were first deployed by the Chicago police in 2015, there have been questions about cases in which officers don’t have videos of arrests, searches and instances in which they fire their weapons. In February, the city’s inspector general criticized the police department for failing to have body-camera video in 82% of the arrests during the civil unrest in Chicago between May 29 and June 7.

Eric Piza, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says he’s been studying Newark, New Jersey, police officers’ body-camera videos for about two years. He says he found that the time it takes for an officer to use force on a suspect averages about six minutes. Also, he found that not all officers announced they’re wearing a camera when they first came in contact with a suspect.

“We found there is a lot of lead-up time to the point where force is necessary,” Piza says.

The videos showed the officers could do more to de-escalate conflicts, he says, including calling on other cops to help them calm down the situation.

“My colleagues and I came to the simple realization that the simple act of coding this footage can teach you a lot about police interactions,” Piza says. “We would recommend any technological solutions that would allow [police] to review their footage more quickly and efficiently.”

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