The Trouble With Police Body Cameras

A Chicago officer who shot an unarmed black man last week wore a camera that switched off during the shooting.


NEWS BRIEF A Chicago police officer who fatally shot a black man in the back last week was wearing a body camera during the shooting, but the camera was turned off at the time, officials with the city’s police department said Monday.

The incident has started a controversy over the effectiveness of body cameras, which can be controlled by the officers wearing them. The officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Paul O’Neal has been placed on paid administrative leave, along with two other officers involved in the shooting. A lawyer representing O’Neal’s family said they have filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

O’Neal was killed July 28 in Chicago’s South Side. He was driving a Jaguar that was reported stolen. Officers began to chase after him, and O’Neal crashed into a police cruiser. As O’Neal ran away, officers shot him in the back.

The camera worn by one officer reportedly captured the beginning of the chase, but cut out before the fatal shot. The Chicago Police Department began testing body cameras in 2015, but only in one district. It recently expanded the technology to six other districts, and, according to the Chicago Tribune, the officer involved in the shooting had only used the camera for one month. The head of the police union that represents officers in the department blamed the camera’s dysfunction on a “learning curve.” But the family’s lawyers called the missing footage a coverup.

The Tribune points out the incident comes at an already complicated crossroads between police and citizens in Chicago:

Chicago's increased use of body and dashboard cameras comes as the department faces one of worst crises in its history. The court-ordered release of a video in November of a white officer shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times led to widespread protests, the firing of then-Superintendent Garry McCarthy and the launching of a U.S. Justice Department probe of policing practices.

Police officials said the three officers were suspended because they violated department policies. In 2015, according to the Tribune, the department changed its use-of-force policies and prohibited actions that would put themselves or others in “unreasonable danger.”

Body cameras have been seen as the latest solution to officer oversight, given the number of high-profile deaths of unarmed black men in the last two years. After the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old in Chicago whose death started a battle to release the footage of the incident, Chicago enacted a policy that calls for releasing police shooting footage within 60 days. The footage of the shooting of Paul O’Neal has not yet been released. A dashboard camera from an officer’s car reportedly caught some of the shooting, and department Superintendent Eddie Johnson told The New York Times this footage was “very helpful” in suggesting the officers had violated department policy.