Wheaton to roll out bodycams for police officers

Wheaton police will equip sworn officers with body-worn cameras about two years ahead of a deadline set by the state.

As part of Illinois' sweeping criminal justice reform law, all police officers in the state must wear body cameras by 2025. The deadlines for individual departments vary based on population size. A police force of Wheaton's size - serving more than 50,000 people - must roll out the devices by 2024.

But the city is not waiting until then. The department plans to outfit all 67 sworn officers with body cameras in early April.

"We are trying to get ahead of the curve and understand the technology, become very comfortable with it," Deputy Police Chief P.J. Youker said.

In October, the city council unanimously approved a $460,000, five-year contract with Arizona-based Axon Enterprise for the body camera system, including cloud-based storage.

The technology has become more and more prevalent in policing as a measure of accountability and transparency.

Signed into law last year, the state's criminal justice reform legislation, commonly known as the SAFE-T Act, requires police to store body camera recordings for only 90 days unless an encounter captured on the video has been "flagged." The footage may be stored longer than 90 days over the course of a criminal prosecution, if a formal or informal complaint has been filed against an officer or if the officer used force during the encounter.

"Sometimes it can be flagged permanently for permanent retention if the case ... requires us to maintain it for all time, homicide, perhaps," Youker said. "And so it's different for every offense, but if it is just a routine interaction, and there is no criminal charges or follow-up, the statute requires us to delete that interaction after 90 days."

The statute also carves out "very limited situations" where the officer can turn off a body camera, Youker said.

"Dealing with an informant is one of those particular issues," he said.

Police began researching the use of body-worn cameras well before the state legislature made it mandatory, officials said in announcing the rollout.

Officers tested body cameras from three companies - Axon, Motorola and Utility - during three separate trial periods from July through September. Sgt. Daniel Salzmann, who developed the pilot program, said the three companies are the top manufacturers leading the market.

At the end of each trial period, personnel in patrol, records and evidence divisions as well as detectives and supervisors were surveyed about the hardware and software.

"Every facet of the police department would be affected from bodycam implementation," Salzmann said. "It's not just simply putting the camera on somebody."

Police also met with local agencies that already use Axon and Motorola cameras. And because few Illinois departments have introduced cameras made by Utility, Wheaton police traveled to Indiana to see that vendor's technology in action.

The department ended up choosing Axon for its user-friendly software and an auto-transcription tool that will help officers and supervisors review video footage, Salzmann said.

Axon also offers, a cloud-based management system that will allow police to easily share digital evidence with the DuPage County state's attorney's office.

Salzmann is now helping draft a department body camera policy expected to be 15 pages long. While officers will be trained on the cameras, Youker said, they're already used to being recorded by people with cellphones, by car cameras in their squad cars, and in jails, Youker said.

"We're always on camera," he said. "So we're very aware of those factors, and this is just something new."

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