Forest Park police officers will soon be wearing body cameras, thanks in part to a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The $33,000 award will pay a portion of the total cost of $69,000 for cameras and related equipment. The rest will be paid with federally seized funds.
But Police Chief Tom Aftanas said that even if the department hadn’t received the grant, he would have pursued getting body cams all the same.
“I’ve talked to the union, to our supervisors and officers, specifically those named in past lawsuits, and nobody has made any complaints about the idea,” said Aftanas, who also cited many benefits to having and using body cameras in policing.
“People seem to be less confrontational if they know they’re being recorded, which can help with officer safety,” said Aftanas. “For training purposes, it helps to have video that officers can review. And [body cameras] can prevent false allegations while at the same time holding police officers accountable.”
And, of course, they’re also useful as evidence.
Aftanas said initially he wasn’t sure if there would be pushback from his department, but there wasn’t any at all.
“So many of our officers are new and see it as the way things are,” said Aftanas. “And some brought up accusations made against some officers in the past. They want to be able to prove people wrong.”
Aftanas acknowledged there have been lawsuits against the Forest Park police department. With cameras, he said, exactly what happened would have been recorded, leaving far fewer questions and less ambiguity.
Aftanas has spoken to police departments of neighboring towns who use body cameras, and he said that in many cases, reports of complaints about police have gone down with cameras in use. Broadview, Bellwood and Berkeley are three nearby towns where the police already wear body cameras. Oak Park and River Forest police do not.
Lieutenant Christopher Chin, who has worked with Aftanas on bringing the cameras to the department, said that another reason the department has seen little resistance is because technology is so much more prevalent today.
“Ten years ago, there probably would have been a lot more push-back,” said Chin. “But these days, people record everything on phones anyway.”
Aftanas said when the midnight shift officers go into a bar just to do a premises check, automatically patrons pull out their phones and start recording, just in case something exciting happens. Now, the police will have their own official recording as well.
Chin added that although the body cam is always recording, once an officer presses the “record” button, the last 30 seconds of events are automatically included in the specified segment, a feature that is also part of the squad car cameras currently in use.
Aftanas and Chin hope to have the cameras in use by the end of the summer at the latest, though it’s a comprehensive process and takes about a year, from start to finish, said Aftanas. The grant was approved in September 2019.
“We have to develop policy regarding the use of the cameras, which is pretty much done,” he said. “The next step is having all employees review the policy and making any necessary changes. Then we get it approved by the Department of Justice. Once that happens, the funds are awarded, allowing us to go ahead and order the equipment. We install it, train, and go live.”
He said he expected that, with any new technology, it might not be flawless in the beginning and there may be glitches here and there. And it will take a little time for the officers to get used to the system.
But Aftanas said he’s glad to be bringing this new technology to the department and that he thinks the body cameras will be a positive change.
“They’re for our protection and everyone’s benefit,” said Aftanas.