In other words, it took a highly non-standard series of events—a whistleblower and many lawsuits—for Chicagoans to learn of, and then get to see, the incident. (As recently as November 13, Rahm Emanuel, the city’s mayor, refused to put a hard date on the video’s release.) If a similar incident were to happen, and it was captured on a body cam, what would it take to make it public—another whistleblower?
It’s more than an academic question. The city of Chicago will soon spend $1 million in federal funds to purchase body cameras for its force. As I wrote last December, the campaign which got dashboard cameras installed in most American police cars last decade looks a lot like the one that currently seeks to get body cameras placed on most American police. Then, as now, a coalition of local chiefs and anti-police-violence activists rallied to support the technology. Then, as now, millions in federal funding soon followed.
But then, the story of police dash cams ground to a halt. There has never been a widespread study of whether dash cams reduced racial profiling or police abuse, though some smaller studies have found they they did not. (It’s highly likely that body-worn cameras will be better studied.) And as various cities limited access to dash-cam footage, it became difficult for citizens and activists to obtain video.
Will the story be the same with body cameras? Let’s look at the law.
Two different policies guide how body cameras are used in Chicago. The first is Illinois’s state body-camera law, which was signed and passed in August. Though slightly more prescriptive than similar legislation in other states—Illinois orders officers to film every citizen interaction, unless a subject asks otherwise—it leaves most of the nitty-gritty of body-camera policy up to local departments.
Which is where the second policy comes in. The Chicago Police Department’s internal department notice D15-01 governs how that city’s officers can use body cameras and how the city can treat footage produced by the devices. Earlier this month, that policy was evaluated by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a policy and lobbying organization for hundreds of U.S. rights groups, and Upturn, a firm that frequently consults on progressive technology issues.
Their scorecard found that the city’s body-camera rules are mostly lacking. While Chicago’s policy satisfied two important criteria—it set limits on when officers could record and it protects some classes of subjects—it specifically leaves open many questions of access. Chicago allows officers to view footage before filing a report, which many civil-rights groups oppose. Chicago does not specifically prohibit tampering with footage (though it does forbid copying or disseminating footage without authorization, and it says all access to its online database is tracked). And, crucially, the city provides no way for people captured by body cameras or their families to gain access to footage.