What a police camera did NOT record

What a police camera did NOT record

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It’s hard to know exactly what happened when Isaac Gibson was arrested on June 13th, 2009. Directly across the street from where it happened there’s a police POD camera, one of the so-called “blue light cameras” hanging from a street light, yet there’s no police video of the incident, at least nothing useable.

On that night Gibson was hanging out with his cousins outside his aunt’s building on Chicago’s West Side. There was a party in a vacant lot down the street, and when a fight broke out, the police were called. Gibson says they were using billy clubs and mace and he started taking pictures on his cell phone, but first, he got into his aunt’s front yard.

“I made sure two things, that I was behind the gate but at the same time I was focussed on nothing but taking the pictures,” says Gibson.

Gibson got several photos before someone grabbed his phone but he says, “I snatched the phone back away and when I turned and realized it was a police officer he was saying something as a “Did you see that?  He touched me.  He assaulted a police officer.’  That’s when he pushed me back against the gate.”

Isaac Gibson where he was wrongfully arrested on June 13th, 2009. (WBEZ/Robert Wildeboer)
Gibson says the officer swung him around and he cut his face on a crate that was hanging on the fence as a make-shift basketball hoop. He was pushed to the ground, cuffed and taken to jail for 24 hours. He filed a complaint with the Independent Police Review Authority, which handles police misconduct cases, and they immediately preserved the police camera video. When Gibson sued the city for wrongful arrest his lawyers got that video, thinking it would show what happened that night.

I met one of his attorneys, Torri Hamilton, at her office in the Loop.  She showed me the footage, which starts with the police surveillance camera doing a full circle every 60 seconds. The footage seems to prove that Gibson had no part of the party because once every minute you see him about a half block from the vacant lot.

But then at 1:13 a.m., when the fight breaks out and the police are called, the images change.

Police officers can control the cameras from desktop computers at the stations. It’s clear this camera is taken over manually - it’s no longer circling every minute. The recording shows that the officer controlling this camera briefly scanned the vacant lot where the party was and then zoomed down the sidewalk.

And that, strangely, is where it stays.

Everything is pixilated and out of focus. It’s tough to figure out what the camera operator was trying to see, which is why Hamilton thinks it was deliberately diverted away from the action on the street.

“They knew they were going to go in there and they were going to use force to quell whatever sort of, fight, or whatever was going on at this party and they didn’t want it recorded.  They didn’t want their actions recorded,” says Hamilton.

For 10 minutes the camera stays pointed at the sidewalk and a tree, recording nothing useful, everything out of focus. Then it returns to its pre-programmed, 360-degree tour. At that point, there are no less than 19 police cars on the street.

Hamilton says police went in using mace and billy clubs to disperse the crowd that night. Because of the way the camera was positioned, none of it is caught on tape. Gibson’s arrest on private property where he was just taking photos only serves to bolster Hamilton’s theory that the police didn’t want their actions recorded. 

“Why in the world when everybody in the 10th district station knows that they’re descending in force, because they’re needed, they were needed, definitely, why they wouldn’t want the truth to be recorded to protect them?” she said. “I suspect that this might be unfortunately a practice of the Chicago Police Department when they know they’re going in to handle a dangerous situation and that they know they’re going to use force, they don’t want it documented.”

“I can understand how if somebody wasn’t familiar with how the system worked they might draw that conclusion but you know, that is not necessarily a correct conclusion to draw,” says Commander Jonathan Lewin. He oversees technology, including the cameras for the Chicago Police Department.

He doesn’t think there’s anything suspicious about this video. He says police officers often use cameras to check out a situation before officers are physically on the scene. But he says once police are on the scene then the camera operator’s time is better spent focusing on other parts of the city where there are no officers.

“At that point, if the operator relinquishes their manual control of the camera it will automatically stay in the fixed position for 10 minutes which is exactly what happens in this case and then it will go back to its pre-programmed tour,” says Lewin.

But if the point of the cameras is to capture evidence this was in almost the worst possible place. I asked Lewin if the police wouldn’t want to capture the main action that’s going on on that street because that’s the point of the cameras, isn’t it? He disagreed.

“I wouldn’t even say that that’s the point of the cameras.  The point of the cameras is to reduce crime.  The camera operator is not there to confirm or refute police conduct.  They’re there to identify possible crimes and ensure that the right level of police response occurs,” says Lewin.

One problem with Lewin’s explanation is that the camera turns and stays on the sidewalk before police are even on the scene. On the video it takes another 45 seconds before there’s any hint of squad car lights.

In terms of police oversight and just who can control the cameras, Lewin says there’s a list of authorized users who have to log in and use a password, so their usage is tracked. That means one could go back and figure out why the police camera was turned away from the street one minute before 19 police cars and even more officers flooded the street to make arrests using mace and billy clubs in the middle of the night, a situation seemingly ripe with potential for confusion and mayhem. But Lewin says he has no concerns about this video, and he says he didn’t make any calls to find out who operated this camera that night or why they zoomed in on the sidewalk.

That doesn’t sound quite right to Jody Weis, the former head of the Chicago Police Department.

“There’s a lot of questions with that and I think somebody should look and find out what happened.  That doesn’t make sense.  That is not using technology,” says Weis.

Weis says it’s not too much of a stretch to think officers would divert the cameras. He says when he was in charge they had a problem with officers turning off the cameras in their cars, “and I think it was because people had a fear, we don’t want this camera recording what we’re doing and I don’t know how many times I spent and said ‘Guys, if you’re doing your job correctly this camera’s your greatest friend.‘”

Weis says cops are allowed to use force, and if it’s caught on video, the video will show that it was necessary. Gibson’s attorney Torri Hamilton says the same thing.

“The truth is the truth and I do believe that a jury, and citizens would find if a video actually showed that the force was justified, they would be very happy to find in a police officer’s favor.” And Hamilton says if the video showed an arrestee being less than cooperative, few lawyers would want to invest time into pursuing a risky lawsuit on their behalf.

As for Gibson, he won a $7,500 verdict for wrongful arrest, though most of that will go to pay attorneys’ fees. He thinks the verdict would have been larger if there had been video of the incident. But he says he’s gotten a new cell phone and this one takes video so he’ll have more than just photos if it happens again. Illinois law isn’t on his side though. People are not allowed to video tape police in public without their consent, though the ACLU is currently fighting that law in court.

Raw uncut footage from the surveillance camera