Chicago Plans Body Camera Program Expansion Amid Public Outcry

The Chicago Police Department will be expanding its body-worn camera program from a 29-camera system to a 1,400-camera system, a move that comes as the city grapples with the fallout from a questionable 2014 officer-involved shooting.

As the city of Chicago grapples with the ongoing scandal surrounding the 2014 police shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and allegations of bad leadership within the police department and mayor’s office, city officials are plotting the course for expanded body camera deployments for the coming year.

More than $2 million in federal and city funding will be used to boost the police department’s initial 29-camera pilot program to a 1,400 camera program. The department said it is waiting until early 2016 to deploy the body-worn systems for technological reasons.

“One of the reasons we are waiting is the next generation of technology will be available in early 2016. The camera is going to be higher resolution, better low-light performance…” said Deputy Chief Jonathan Lewin in a Nov. 30 press conference.

The announcement coincided with the civil unrest surrounding the release of the McDonald shooting video and the arrest of Officer Jason Van Dyke on first-degree murder charges Nov. 24. Van Dyke was released on $1.5 million bail Nov. 30.

The release of 2014 dashboard-mounted video showing McDonald being shot 16 times by police was the match that set off the powder keg, revitalizing allegations of negligence and what some are calling a systemic problem of excessive police force.

Amid calls for a complete overhaul of city leadership, embattled Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked for the resignation of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy Dec. 1, effectively firing him. Though Emanuel praised McCarthy's efforts to this point, he cited public trust as the impetus for the leadership change.

“Superintendent Garry McCarthy has been an excellent leader of our police department over the last four-and-a-half years. His community policing strategy has led to the lowest crime rate on record, and his efforts to remove guns from the street have yielded significant progress," Emanuel said at a press conference. "But Supervisor McCarthy knows that a police officer is only effective when he has the trust of those he serves. After this weekend, after effectively handling the protests that followed the release of the McDonald video and the arrest of [Laquan’s] killers, Superintendent McCarthy and I began a discussion on Sunday about the direction of the department and the undeniable fact that the public trust in the leadership of the department has been shaken."

In interviews with the CBS Chicago stations prior to his resignation, McCarthy said the city’s slow release of the McDonald shooting video had to do with departmental investigation policy. He also clarified that officer-involved shootings are not investigated internally, but rather are looked at by the Independent Police Review Authority. According to McCarthy, all of the departmental policies were followed immediately after the shooting and throughout the course of the lengthy investigation.

But the scandal’s reverberations extend far past the firing of a the city’s top cop; Illinois’ Attorney General Lisa Madigan called for a federal investigations into five other questionable police incidents in a Dec. 1 letter (PDF) to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

“Over the past week, the city of Chicago has once again been confronted with significant questions about the use of excessive force and accountability of the Chicago Police Department,” she wrote. “On Nov. 24, 2015, the city released a video taken from the dashboard camera of a CPD vehicle. The video, taken on Oct. 20, 2014, shows 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being fatally shot by a CPD officer. The McDonald shooting is shocking, and it highlights serious questions about the historic, systemic use of unlawful and excessive force by Chicago police officers and the lack of accountability for such abuse by CPD.”

Madigan said the city needs an “outside, independent investigation” before it can rebuild trust between the community and the police department.

Presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also voiced the need for a federal investigation into the department. She posted a comment via Twitter about the situation in Chicago Nov. 25.

“The family of Laquan McDonald and the people of Chicago deserve justice and accountability. As criminal charges proceed in this case, we also have to grapple as a country with the broader questions about ensuring that all our citizens and communities are protected and respected. The mothers I met recently in Chicago are right: we cannot go on like this. All over America, there are police officers honorably doing their duty, demonstrating how to protect the public without resorting to unnecessary force. We need to learn from and build on those examples. The loss of so many young African Americans taken too soon should reaffirm our commitment to press forward for progress,” she said in the posted statement.

At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during a Dec. 2 press briefing that President Obama was aware of and following the situation. Emanuel served as the president’s chief of staff from November 2008 until September 2010, when he left the White House to run for mayor of Chicago.

“…The president is obviously aware of the quite intense national coverage of the events in his hometown over the last week or so, and the president has been following it. I don’t know that he’s had the opportunity to speak to Mayor Emanuel in the last week," he said. "Obviously, the president has spent a fair amount of time overseas the last few weeks. But I can tell you that what we did see from Mayor Emanuel in the news conference that he held yesterday was a personal commitment to following through on reforms that he believes are needed within the Chicago Police Department.” 

Many in the city have called for the mayor's resignation. 

“Obviously the citizens of the city of Chicago will have to determine who should be running the city, including evaluating his commitment over the long term to implementing reforms," Earnest said in the briefing. "And that’s why we have elections — so that city officials are held accountable, as they should be."

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at