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How Chicago Police Hope Body Cameras Will Restore the Public's Trust

By Paul Biasco | January 7, 2016 5:36am
 Chicago Police Commander Marc Buslik explains the charging and upload process for body cameras.
Chicago Police Commander Marc Buslik explains the charging and upload process for body cameras.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

LOGAN SQUARE — After 10 months of police officers wearing body cameras in Chicago's Logan Square and Wicker Park neighborhoods, the early results are in — and they are positive.

The Chicago Police commander in charge of the city's body camera pilot program said the devices have led to fewer complaints against officers.

And he's confident that expansion of the program will see similar results elsewhere in the city.

"Is it because officers were behaving badly [before the cameras], or is it because people who have made spurious complaints are not making those? I don’t have the answer," said Cmdr. Marc Buslik of the Shakespeare District. "I don’t care.”

 The charging station of the body cameras at the 14th District charges the cameras while uploading video footage.
The charging station of the body cameras at the 14th District charges the cameras while uploading video footage.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

Buslik said "when they know they are being recorded, both sides, everything becomes less intense.”

Since the pilot launched in February on the district's 2 p.m. to midnight shift, overall complaints filed against officers have fallen by 26 percent, according to police. In excessive force complaints, the total fell to zero in 2015 compared with seven in 2014, before the cameras were launched.

Buslik, the Police Department's expert on the cameras, helped launch Chicago's pilot body camera program in the district, which includes parts of Logan Square and Wicker Park. After a little more than 10 months of running the pilot, Buslik now is leading the expansion from 30 cameras in his district to 1,500-1,600 cameras in six other districts: Austin, Wentworth, Deering, Ogden, South Chicago and Gresham.

The purpose of the cameras is to document police actions and capture any sort of misconduct either by the officer or the citizen, protecting both the police officer from illegitimate complaints and the citizen from unlawful police actions.

They also can de-escalate situations, as both police and the public know their actions are being recorded.

"The camera brings everything down on both sides,” he said. "Officers noticed right away."

"We respond to what's presented to us. This is a terrible misconception that people think we come in all gangbusters. ... If things are up here at 10, we are going to be at 11 in order to control the situation. If things are at 2, we are going to be at 2," Buslik said.

The most comprehensive study nationally to date, commissioned by the U.S. Justice Department, found that there is not enough data yet to determine the effectiveness of body cameras. The study, by Michael White, a criminologist at Arizona State University, found that body-worn cameras have a "civilizing effect," resulting in better behavior by officers and citizens and noted that there have been decreases in complaints filed against officers.

When Buslik presented the cameras to the first batch of 30 Chicago Police officers, he told them, "This is your silent partner. [It's] going to back you up, and nobody can question motives."

How the cameras work

At the start of each shift, officers pick up their cameras from a charging rack while grabbing the usual set of car keys and police radio. The officer must flip on a power switch on top of the boxy black camera and clip it to the front of his or her uniform wherever it's comfortable.

The department originally tested two different cameras, both made by the company Taser. It decided on a one-piece unit rather than a three-piece device with a battery pack that clips on a belt and has a smaller camera connected to the pack by a wire.

Once powered up, the cameras always are recording, but they only begin saving images when the officer hits a button in the middle of the camera, required during any stop. However, the camera automatically buffers, meaning the saved recording also includes 30 seconds of video before the officer hits the button.

The body camera beeps loudly when the device is activated and a red light flashes on the top of the camera while it's recording to let the officer know it's working.

Officers also must announce that they are recording the person being stopped.

At the end of a shift the officer puts his or her individual body camera on a charging rack at the station, and the video footage automatically uploads to an online server while the device charges.

Compliance by officers has not been an issue up until this point, according to Buslik, unlike the use of existing squad car dashcams and microphones. DNAinfo Chicago reported last month that 80 percent of dashcams don't properly record audio due to "operator error, or in some cases, intentional destruction."

A police spokesman confirmed a Sun-Times report that 22 officers have been disciplined in the last month due to noncompliance.

"I don’t see [body cameras] having the same issue," Buslik said, adding that with dashcams, "there's a couple things there, some are technical issues, some are operational issues.

"I think this is a very different kind of thing, in part because this is assigned to you. You have it from the time you start that tour of duty until you are done, on you, on the go,” he said.

As of late December, more than 5,000 videos had been captured during the pilot program, totaling more than 850 hours of footage.

During the first 10 months of the pilot program, the department has had only one instance where a camera failed, Buslik said. Investigators reviewing body camera video of an officer involved in a scuffle noticed the tape was black for most of the recording. The video later showed the officer picking up the camera, looking into the lens, and clipping it back on his uniform.

It turned out the camera fell off, but continued to record the audio.

Punishment for the misuse of the cameras is on a case-by-case basis. If an officer is found to have not activated the body camera, enforcement is up to the front-line supervisors to hold the officers accountable, according to Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

Supervisors could also be held accountable for not enforcing the new body camera directive, Guglielmi said. Interim police Supt. John Escalante issued that directive, which became effective Jan. 1.

 A Chicago Police Department body camera, which was supplied by Taser.
A Chicago Police Department body camera, which was supplied by Taser.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

To ensure officers are turning on the cameras, a lieutenant goes through files once a week, checking to see if there is video for documented stops, acting as a random auditor.

"Has it been perfect? No. Nothing's perfect," Buslik said. "But, there has been no concerted effort to avoid recording."


The Chicago Police Department has been considering body cameras since early 2014, and former Supt. Garry McCarthy announced the pilot program in December of that year. The former top cop referenced Ferguson, Mo., and police mistrust issues while unveiling the program, as well as the national push to outfit officers with cameras after the shooting of Michael Brown.

The pilot cameras in the Shakespeare District were paid for by Taser, and the additional cameras for the upcoming rollout will be covered by a federal grant, officials said.

However, there are costs beyond the initial purchases — storing the vast amount of video data at a minimum of 90 days per clip, assigning or hiring officers to handle that data and also to fill freedom of information requests for footage.

The actual cost of paying for those additional costs hasn't been figured out, but Buslik estimated that the department would need to hire one person to manage every 100 cameras.

"It's expensive," he said. "There's no doubt about it. It's very expensive."

The budget for the expanded program is approximately $2 million, with a portion coming from a $1 million federal grant. CPD has also applied for additional state grants to assist with camera purchases, storage, maintenance, licensing, upload stations and program-related costs.

"There's going to be some acceleration as a result of what's going on, but we were planning on doing it anyway," Buslik said, adding that it is not a "knee jerk reaction" by police in general or the Chicago Police Department.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the expansion of the program in late November, a week after the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, and planned to have the program implemented in seven of the city's 22 police districts by the middle of 2016.

"Increasing public safety, improving transparency and building trust in our police department are three key priorities, and the expansion of the body camera program is a significant step forward for each,” Emanuel said in a release announcing the expansion. “While body cameras are just one tool and not the only reform needed, this technology will soon be a regular part of every interaction — routine or extraordinary — between residents and police officers in more communities across our city.”

In December, that timeframe was moved to an "early spring of 2016" date, which Buslik said was slightly accelerated in the heated climate of public protests. The current target is as early as March, though that timeline relies on when funds become available.

Buslik said someday he imagines the cameras will no longer be necessary, but for now, it is a necessity.

"Eventually perhaps the taxpayers will say, 'You know what, I'm so confident and I'm so trusting of my police department that I don’t want to pay for cameras anymore,' but we are not there yet," Buslik said. "In fact, we are at the opposite position, which is, 'I don’t know if I can completely trust my police department. I don’t mistrust them, but I want to make sure my trust is well founded and cameras are a way to do that.' "

To that end, he thinks if the police officer who shot Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones the day after Christmas had a body camera on, public reaction may have been different.

Police say the shooting of Jones was an accident and that LeGrier was wielding a baseball bat, but for now, it's unclear what that officer encountered when he responded to the call.

"You better believe the officers who were involved in the shooting wish they had body cameras so they could document exactly how this guy was attacking them," said Buslik. "You better believe Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, wishes he had a body camera. That’s really what it comes down to.”

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