In violation of the department’s policy, Forest Park police officer Robert Biel did not use a dash-mounted video camera to record his November arrest of a man now threatening to sue the village for police brutality.
Police Chief James Ryan confirmed the violation on Jan. 19 after initially refusing to answer questions about the incident. Ryan said the department’s inquiry into the policy violation was tied to an internal review of the arrest itself.
According to an incident report stemming from the Nov. 2, 2006, arrest, Biel made several attempts to handcuff Clarence Davis Jr. for driving with a suspended license and suspended registration after pulling him over for a seatbelt violation. Allegedly, Davis repeatedly refused the officer’s request to place his hands behind his back and attempted to distance himself from Biel. After calling dispatch for backup, Biel applied his stun gun to Davis’s lower back several times, according to the report.
Davis has denied accusations that he was combative and non-compliant, and said the repeated jolts from the Taser prompted an involuntary bowel movement.
According to Biel’s report, Davis intentionally soiled his clothes while in custody at the police department.
Seven days after the arrest, Village Administrator Mike Sturino stated in an e-mail sent to various Forest Park officials that there is reason for “concern regarding the policy violation and its implications,” according to a copy of the e-mail obtained by the Review. That e-mail was sent to Ryan, Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas and Mayor Anthony Calderone.
When asked for comment on Jan. 16, both Aftanas and Ryan declined to confirm or deny whether a video recording of the arrest was made.
“We took the appropriate action,” Ryan said earlier this week. “I’m not going to talk to you about that.”
Calderone, who also serves as commissioner of the police department, flatly denied having any knowledge of the infraction. The mayor said he did speak with the chief about the internal investigation, but never followed up on the “unanswered” question regarding the tape.
“I don’t have first hand knowledge of any violation,” Calderone said.
An internal investigation was prompted by the suspect’s complaint that Biel unnecessarily used the Taser to stun him. Earlier this month the chief said that inquiry revealed the department acted appropriately in arresting Davis.
As for Biel’s use of the dash-mounted camera, Ryan had said the matter is a “personnel issue.”
In a later interview, Ryan acknowledged that Biel had violated department policy, but he declined to comment on the specifics of the discipline imposed on Biel. Illinois statute allows for an unpaid suspension of no more than five days without a hearing before the Fire and Police Commission.
“I think Officer Biel was given a severe discipline because we wanted to make an example of him,” Ryan said, in regard to the use of video cameras.
A police department policy dating back to March 2003 stipulates the recording “equipment will be used to record all traffic stops and pursuits….” Further, deactivating the equipment or failure to use it in accordance with the policy is a violation and “may result in disciplinary action.”
The VHS camera can be activated automatically by using the vehicle’s emergency lights, or manually if the lights are not used, according to the policy. To make audio recordings the officer must turn the microphone on manually. Turning off the vehicle’s emergency lights will not deactivate the camera. This must be done manually.
At the beginning of each shift, patrol officers must “turn on the system and ensure it engages the recording mode activated by the vehicle’s emergency lights,” according to department policy.
Shift commanders for the department are responsible for changing the tapes after each shift and assisting in the cataloguing of those tapes. Deputy Aftanas said the tapes are no longer changed on a daily basis because the process was exceedingly cumbersome. Tapes are now changed weekly, Aftanas said.
At the time he initially declined to comment on the violation, Ryan suggested the recording equipment has a history of malfunctioning and the department is in the process of gradually upgrading to digital equipment, which is more reliable.
“Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t,” Ryan said of the vehicle cameras.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Review requested copies of maintenance records for the camera equipment in squad car 276, which Biel was driving on Nov. 2, 2006. E-mail communications dated Jan. 17 between Ryan and the department’s mechanic, George Prescott, indicate no repairs have ever been requested for the equipment in squad car 276.
“As far as I know that camera system has not been taken out of that car since its initial build,” Prescott stated in his e-mail. “The only camera system that is out right now is 204’s.”
A hand written note on the documentation signed by the chief states “There would be a record only if it is sent in for service.”
Both Calderone and Sturino said they’ve received no requests from the police department to replace the cameras used in police vehicles, nor have they received complaints of faulty equipment.
The criminal charges against Davis for traffic violations and resisting arrest are still pending, and according to Davis’s attorney Nick Albukerk, a bench trial is expected. Depending on the outcome of that case, Albukerk said the matter may be handed over to attorney Blake Horwitz who specializes in civil cases alleging police misconduct.