Elgin cops on testing body cameras: 'We're embracing it'
Elgin officers who've been testing body cameras say, so far, they seem to be a great benefit to police and residents alike.
The public's expectation to have police video footage is "the new reality," Cmdr. Ana Lalley said. "The body cameras can help strengthen and enhance transparency and accountability in the police department," she said. "We are embracing it. We are not afraid of it."
Early results from the testing of body cameras are "overwhelmingly positive," said officer Thomas Coffield, who is among eight officers in the pilot program that kicked off about three weeks ago. The department has conducted more than two years of initial testing and research.
"From the officer's perspective, it is a great evidentiary tool for recalling events or completing detailed reports," Coffield said. "And the transparency that body cameras provide makes me feel further protected from the possibility of false complaints."
Elgin hopes to equip all of its 180 officers with the help of a $250,000 matching grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Several city council members said they support the initiative. Councilman Terry Gavin said he wants to use police drug asset forfeiture money to cover the city's costs; City Manager Sean Stegall confirmed that's the plan for the initial purchase, but future operational costs -- such as the storing of video footage -- will be borne by the general fund.
The use of body cameras could drive drown the number of residents' complaints against police, just as the introduction of squad car cameras did 13 years ago.
"It's just another piece of the investigation that we would use" for all cases, including complaints, Lalley said.
A study cited by the International Association of Chiefs of Police shows residents' complaints of misconduct by officers wearing body cameras fell by 87.5 percent in a one-year period in Rialto, California, an early adopter.
There have been 14 complaints filed by residents against Elgin officers since September 2014, ranging from rudeness to excessive force. That's a low number, Lalley said. Police made 4,334 arrests in that same period in Elgin, which has about 110,000 residents.
After internal review, which includes any available video, the officers involved in the complaints were exonerated, or the complaints were found not sustained or groundless. One complaint is still pending.
That one came from a woman who was charged in December with resisting arrest and who claimed the officer snatched her phone, slammed her to the ground and threw her in his squad car. Video from the squad car camera obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by the Daily Herald shows only an empty street, as the interaction between the officer and the woman took place out of camera view.
The complaint is pending because the woman has refused be interviewed as part of the internal review while the criminal case is ongoing, city officials said.
Job the same
The Elgin officers equipped with body cameras say the devices have not affected their behavior.
"It has not altered the way I do my job," Sgt. Rob Hartman said. "I continue to do my job the same way I have for almost 20 years."
Officer James Bailey agreed. "I have been employed by the Elgin police for nine years and I have performed my duties with the same professionalism. At times you forget that it is there due to the size."
However, data seem to indicate that body cameras can affect police behavior, as use of force by officers wearing body cameras in Rialto fell by 59 percent, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police study.
That could be about people not wanting to misbehave on camera, which in turn leads to more peaceful interactions, Lalley said. "It could be either the officer or people changing their behavior -- or it could be both."
Coffield said his body camera has helped de-escalate situations. "There has been more than once instance where reminding uncooperative people that they were being recorded seemed to make them change their attitude and become more cooperative," he said.
Body cameras have physical and technical limitations and are by no means a universal answer, police said.
Some models have wires that can get snagged or in the way of movement, and vest cameras don't record what the officers are looking at when they turn their heads. Also, any camera can malfunction, Lalley said.
"They can provide more information about what happened but not necessarily provide all the information," she said, so traditional policing methods such as witnesses and forensic evidence will continue to play a role.
And on a basic level, Coffield said, cameras "shouldn't be expected to replace mutual respect and understanding between officers and citizens."
Still, the overall assessment is positive.
"I am happy to see our department test the different products available so we can use the best camera system for our needs," Hartman said.
Bailey agreed. Cameras give "a sense of comfort to the officer and to the public as they know that most police interaction is being captured live," he said.
Elgin officers inform people they are being recorded and switch off the cameras when requested, Lalley said.
But that will change as of Jan. 1, when a new law goes into effect requiring cameras to be turned on at all times when officers are on duty. The Law Enforcement Body Worn Camera Act also has provisions for recording of victims' reports and the expectation of privacy, such as in hospitals.