The Michael Brown Law: Chicago's reception to cops wearing body cameras

The Michael Brown Law: Chicago's reception to cops wearing body cameras

The relationship between Chicago police and many residents has been tense and complicated for years. And for some, the events in Ferguson over the last few months have highlighted the tensions. Nineteen-year-old Shea was with other protesters outside Chicago Police Headquarters Monday night, waiting to hear the grand jury’s decision. She said she doesn’t trust the police, and feels like minorities in Chicago have targets on their backs.

“They put so much fear into people that we can’t even trust them to even call them and say, ‘Hey, someone’s in my house, stealing something.’ We can’t even trust them to do that,” Shea told WBEZ.

Police are aware of the mistrust — they feel it too. When Supt. Garry McCarthy first came to Chicago, he offered WBEZ some historical context. McCarthy said historically, police have been a de facto symbol of racist policies in this country.

“Slavery was written into the Constitution, segregation, Jim Crow, you name it. The point is it was the police departments who enforced those laws. That builds natural distrust and a narrative in that community that before we even step on the block, there’s a natural distrust,” McCarthy explained back in 2012.

Attitudes like Shea’s are omnipresent — and that’s why many Chicagoans are in favor of body cameras for police.

For a long time, residents had no way to legally document what the mistrust between citizens and police officers looked and sounded like. Illinois had a strict law against recording conversations without all parties’ consent. But that law was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court earlier this year--and now, there’s an opportunity to write legislation that includes police body cameras.

Dean Angelo represents more than 10,000 Chicago police officers as president of the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge. Angelo said many of his officers aren’t ready to buy into police cameras. After all, Angelo said, the work of police officers makes them suspicious by nature. He was one of several local law enforcement officers who gave testimony before a joint Illinois judiciary committee hearing.

“Our members sit in two camps: One is no. And the other one is, it’s coming anyway,” Angelo said.

But cops do like the idea of having an official video of record--instead of unofficial cell phone videos that can be manipulated.

“I imagine that the people that are the proponents of the gotcha type of mentality with this environment of using body cameras are going to be extremely surprised what an officer confronts on each and every day of their watch,” said Angelo.

Angelo added that “a certain segment of the population” has no respect for Chicago police officers. The benefit of these body cameras, he said, is revealing officers’ daily reality.

“Eyes will be opened and you’ll see what heroes you have on the streets every day. How tolerant they are, how professional they are and how good they are at their jobs,” Angelo explained.

But Sean Smoot with the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association worries that cameras won’t capture the complete picture, or the whole experience of the street officer.

The cameras are about the size of a pager. They’re usually worn on an officer’s chest. They don’t offer a 360-degree view--and there’s no real depth perception.

“We know from officers who are involved in critical incidents and frankly anyone who has a gun pointed at them, their eye, their brain immediately focuses on the barrel of the gun and what’s happening on the sides or in the periphery, the brain doesn’t process where a camera might,” Smoot said.

And, Smoot added, a camera can’t know when a witness or victim is feeling uncomfortable or overexposed.

“I don’t think any of us want to see a YouTube video released of a police officer interviewing a rape victim for instance,” Smoot said.

Local law enforcement agencies want officers to decide when cameras should be rolling. But with a history of mistrust and misconduct, that’s likely a tough sell in Chicago.

State Rep. Elgie Sims raised questions about the merits of body cameras at the recent judiciary committee hearing. Sims represents Illinois’ 34th district, which covers the South and Southeast sides of Chicago and some surrounding suburbs. He said the district has some great police in the area--but there are also some bad actors.

“I’ve had my own personal experiences with police officers where I know that if there were body cameras in play, the conversation and the interaction would’ve been a lot different,” Sims shared.

Sims said it’s very difficult to have to explain those interactions to your children. He believes body cameras have the ability to curb bad behavior on both sides: Because there are folks, Sims said, who will make false accusations against officers. But he still wouldn’t want to give one actor the ability to control the story.

“If you have the ability to turn the camera on when it’s the most appropriate for you, it puts a different spin on the story,” Sims explained.

Instead, show the whole story, start to finish, he said, and lay out exceptions to the rules--like when it would be unsafe for the officer, a witness or a victim.

There are other concerns being raised by law enforcement and lawmakers. Questions about privacy protections and data storage. And, of course, the cost.

The cameras are between $800 and $1,200 each — but it’s storing what the lens captures that’s most costly. The New Orleans Police Department, for example, estimates it will pay $2 million per year to outfit 900 officers with cameras, and most of that goes to data storage.

When Illinois lawmakers discussed the issue, they’d intended to bring up body cameras during the fall veto session. But as the political landscape has gotten more complicated, House Committee Chair Rep. Elaine Nekritz said she’d be surprised if it came up in the veto session at all. 

Katie O’Brien is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @katieobez.