By Mark Wolf
A panel discussion involving a researcher, two legislators and a police chief talking about police body-worn cameras Monday at the Legislative Summit could scarcely have been more topical or timely.
Amid a festering national debate about policing, Chicago's police chief and protestors were at odds over the use of body cameras in the shooting death of a black teenager that occured only a few miles from the Summit site in Chicago.
Research about the impacts of body-worn cameras and other technology is often contradictory, said Cynthia Lum, associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society, and director of its Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University in Virginia.
The problem of research and technology is that police departments spend a lot of money on it, find it very sexy and productive and then research comes along and says it doesn't actually do what it's supposed to do, according to Lum. "It might slow down policing and worsen relationships with people in the community."
She cited research that said, on the one hand, body cameras reduce complaints against the police but others seem to suggest they allow police to push complaints into a less formal context. "Reducing complaints is different from reducing accountablity."
Some studies show body cameras reduce the police use of force but they might increase the use of force when police have the discretion when to turn cameras on and off. They can improve evidence collection, especially in cases of domestic violence, but they can also affect court costs and not affect outcomes.
Senator Gerald Malloy and Elgin, Ill., police chief Jeffrey Swoboda discussed police body-worn cameras. Swoboda heads the department in Elgin, a city of 112,000 about an hour from Chicago. The department has been dealing with gangs and drug issues and it conducted a test of body-worn cameras with his department of 182 officers.
"We see body-worn cameras as an asset to our police department. They are expensive but so are firearms, tasers and radios," he said.
Illinois law, said Swoboda, doesn't require cameras but if they are used, they must be turned on at all times when an officer is responding to a call for service. Officers must ask for permission to record video in situations where privacy would be expected, such as in a home. The law also excludes officers from being disciplined for minor violations caught on camera. The battery life must be at least 10 hours and the cameras must capture 30 seconds of video immediately proceeding the start of a recording. Records must be saved for at least 90 days, longer if it is flagged for a complaint against an officer, if force is used, a firearm is discharged or if the footage is needed for evidence.
"The cameras can cost $500 to $1,000 but the biggest cost is for storage. If we have 80 officers working on a given day, they will shoot an average of four hours of video each per day. We established a committee, with officers involved early on, to pick which cameras are used, whether they they are glasses-worn or chest-worn."
Malloy outlined the passage of the first-in-the-nation law requiring police departments to use body-worn cameras.
"History has demonstrated that eyewitness testimony is not the most reliable," said Malloy. "This investment is critcal and necessary."
Footage recorded by police cameras in the state is not available under the state's public records law, which means it cannot be released through a Freedom of Information request.
"It protects the officer, protects the citizen and protects the truth," said Malloy.
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.