Plans to bring body cameras to the Forest Park Police Department have been in the works for well over a year, when a $33,000 grant to partially fund them came from the federal Department of Justice.

COVID-19 slowed down production of body cameras, and then a new model hit the market, so the FPPD opted to wait a few months longer for “the latest and greatest,” said Lieutenant Christopher Chin.

Today, three FPPD officers, one on each shift, are wearing and using body cameras, a trial program that began with one officer in February. The purpose is to work out the kinks before rolling the cameras out to all officers, which is expected to happen around June 1.

The department is also still waiting on redaction software from Panasonic, the brand of cameras they’ve purchased, to come in prior to the roll-out to the entire department. Redaction software is a legal requirement that allows the department to blur out faces, license plates, or other private information before making footage available publicly.

Chin, who is in charge of the program within the FPPD, explained how the cameras work.

Officers will wear the camera unit, which is square and about the size of a pack of cigarettes. The unit has a button that, when pressed, not only begins recording, but, using a buffering system, pulls and records the prior 30 seconds as well. So in case an officer can’t or doesn’t press the button immediately, once he or she does, the prior half minute of footage, without audio, automatically becomes part of the recording.

In addition to pressing the button to begin recording, there are several other ways that the body cameras are activated. Body cameras have both GPS and Bluetooth capability and are synced with the officer’s squad car, which also has a camera. When emergency sirens are activated, both the squad car camera and the associated body camera automatically begin recording. Additionally, the squad car camera and body cameras are activated when the squad car begins traveling over 60 mph.

The camera keeps recording until manually turned off by the officer.

When the Review interviewed Police Chief Tom Aftanas in Feb. 2020 about body cameras, he said he was enthusiastic about them, and even without grants from the Department of Justice, he would have pursued them all the same because, he said, they’re for the protection of everyone.

Last week, Deputy Police Chief Kenneth Gross and Chin expressed similar sentiments.

“The population wants us to have them,” Gross said. “It’s a part of being transparent.”

And officers are eager to begin using them. “They’re chomping at the bit,” Chin said. “No officers in our department don’t want it.”

That eagerness, said Gross, reflects how much times have changed. He recounted that soon after he joined the department in 2000, Forest Park began installing and began using in-car cameras. Nobody wanted them, he said. The officers pushed back on the idea of their traffic stops being recorded.

“So when we brought up body cameras, we expected there would be pushback. But there was none,” Gross said.

In part, said Chin, he thinks the officers’ enthusiasm to wear body cameras is because the younger generation of police officers grew up with technology, so it is not something new to them.

Additionally, faced with ubiquitous cell phone cameras and people recording interactions with police regularly, officers appreciate having their own recording of events.

And lately, courts want to see body camera footage. In April, FPPD officers were assaulted outside a bar on Madison Street. But because they couldn’t provide body camera footage to the state’s attorney, felony charges against the suspect were not approved.

The total cost of the body cameras and related equipment is $92,000. $33,000 is being paid through a grant from the Department of Justice; $15,000 through a Justice Assistance Grant; and $10,000 through a Safety Grant from the village’s insurance company.

Despite the notion that all or most police departments are utilizing body cameras nowadays, locally that’s not the case. Chin said Bellwood and Broadview currently are using body cameras. Berkeley was for a while, but the company from which they purchased cameras went out of business, and as their cameras break or need repair, they don’t have the option to replace them.

Neither Oak Park nor River Forest have body cameras. Neither do Riverside nor North Riverside. Brookfield will be getting them this summer.

But municipalities can’t wait too long to get them. The Illinois General Assembly passed legislation this year requiring police departments across the state to implement body cameras and necessary equipment. Smaller municipalities have until 2025 to comply.