Chicago Police to Expand Body Camera Program Citywide a Year Early

The Police Department announced an accelerated plan to outfit thousands of patrol officers with the new cameras and training by late 2017.

by William Lee, Chicago Tribune / December 28, 2016
Chicago Police Department 19th District Commander Marc Buslik discusses the department's body camera policies and demonstrates its use on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, at the district headquarters in Chicago, Ill. Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS

(TNS) — Amid city budget woes, continued mistrust of police in minority communities and a still-pending federal investigation into police practices, Chicago police announced a plan to deploy body cameras into every police district a year early. The move means that in a year, the chest-mounted devices will become a new watchful eye over Chicago police officers and those they encounter.

Just months after police first revealed plans to expand a 2015 body camera pilot program into all 22 police districts by the end of 2018, City Hall and the Police Department announced on Wednesday an accelerated plan to outfit thousands of patrol officers with the new AXON II cameras and training by late 2017.

“The citywide use of body worn cameras within the Chicago Police Department will provide a greater sense of self-awareness to both officers and the individuals that they interact with,” police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a news release announcing the change.

After starting with the pilot program in the Police Department’s Shakespeare District on the Northwest Side, about 2,000 cameras are now in use in seven police districts, but officials didn’t have a precise timetable for when the cameras would hit the streets in the remaining 15 districts.

Use of the cameras ramped up after the public outcry over the release of 2014 squad car video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times as the teenager, who was holding a knife, was walking away.

The move comes as the U.S. Department of Justice continues examining police policies and procedures in the wake of the 2015 release the McDonald video.

Town Hall District Cmdr. Marc Buslik, who oversaw the implementation of the body cameras while working in the Shakespeare District, said the department adopted body camera policies backed by the federal officials.

“Our policies were originally based on best practices of the Justice Department,” said Buslik, who had also acted as the department’s liaison with the Justice Department during its investigation. “We knew what they were likely to be looking for in terms of policy. We’re very comfortable with our policy, and any other commentary from the DOJ will be favorable.”

The commander said he didn’t know the status of the federal investigation, and officials with U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon’s office declined to comment.

After the announcement of the body camera expansion, Buslik and officers at the Town Hall District in Lakeview demonstrated how the flip-phone-size camera can be clipped on to an officer’s bulletproof vest and switched on to record video and audio.

Police were mum on how they paid for the cameras, which were estimated to cost about $8 million and were to be paid for through a combination of the department’s operating budget and grants.

Body cameras have been championed by community activists and civil libertarians as a way of monitoring possible police misconduct, while critics say it could violate the privacy of working police officers. But they aren’t foolproof — police were criticized in late July when a body camera worn by a Chicago officer who fatally shot Paul O’Neal did not capture footage of the altercation.

Buslik said benefits of the body cameras far outweighed the negatives, saying it could provide a fuller picture than clips of supposed police misconduct posted on social media.

“I think any of those concerns is offset by the fact that having our own recording of an incident provides a much better, much fuller description of what took place than a 40-second clip on YouTube,” the commander said.

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