Every on-duty member of the Forest Park Police Department is now recording most public interactions using a body-worn camera, a milestone reached years before a revised state law mandates departments across Illinois do the same.

Acting Chief of Police Ken Gross, who will be officially appointed to the permanent position on Nov. 12, said the 34-member department is making use of 33 body cameras purchased earlier this year through a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The cameras will record all “police contact” with the public, according Gross, and every recording will be housed on an internal server for at least 90 days.

The department began outfitting every on-duty officer, regardless of rank or division, with a body camera on Nov. 1.

Gross said Tom Aftanas, the former Forest Park chief of police, began exploring ways to equip officers with body cameras before the state law was enacted earlier this year and the first bodycams arrived in Forest Park back in February. By April, at least one officer per shift was wearing a camera as part of a trial run that allowed administrators to iron out kinks in the system and better understand how they will be used.

The department policy reads that “use of these cameras will facilitate professionalism, accountability, and transparency by documenting interactions with the public,” and Gross said last week that the recordings could be used for internal purposes, including to analyze and impose discipline for any interactions between police and the public that lead to a citizen complaint. Footage could also be used for training purposes and to audit officers’ work, Gross said.

“It’s going to show, if an officer did do something wrong, if there’s going to be a need for discipline, suspension, termination, retraining,” Gross said. “Or you might find out, too, that the citizen complained about this officer and what that citizen said was a complete fallacy. You might get a complaint and go, what that citizen said was absolutely true and this person needs to be, maybe, watched a little harder.”

But Gross said that he anticipates the interactions recorded on bodycams will primarily show the way police are mistreated by the public and not the other way around.

“I think there’s an image painted about how police act and I think there’s a population that thinks that police routinely act badly and we’re recording the police because we’re going to show that (the police are) acting badly,” Gross said. “I think what’s going to actually happen is you’re going to see that citizens actually act in a way that, really, people aren’t aware of. It’s going to show a lot of bad citizen behavior.”

Kenneth Gross stands for a photo outside of the police station on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, at the Village of Forest Park. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Gross said the response to body cameras has been overwhelmingly positive within the department and said he has personally received no pushback from his officers. In fact, Gross said officers have been given the option to preserve their video recordings for up to two years to protect against any potential legal action, something Gross said he has personally requested.

“I’m sure there’s an officer or two here that doesn’t like them, but I had several officers that have come up to me and said they can’t wait to get them because of the way they’re spoken to and treated on the street,” Gross said. “They want to have that video evidence.”

The recordings also figure to play an evidentiary role in court and other proceedings. Gross said body camera footage was used this summer during hearings in front of the liquor commission to prove, or disprove, claims made by officers and license holders.

“It’s going to help us in court because not only do we have the officers’ word, which I think has been deteriorated a little bit with the rhetoric that’s been put forth through media outlets over the past few years, but now you’re going to have video evidence, aside from dashcam, now you’re going to have video evidence of the way people are interacting with us,” he said.

Amended state law now requires the largest law enforcement agencies in Illinois to begin using body cameras by Jan. 1, 2022 and allows more time to outfit departments in smaller municipalities. Those with under 50,000 residents, including Forest Park, are required to have body cameras for all law enforcement officers by 2025.

Forest Park’s cameras, which are belt-worn, do not automatically store recordings but are always filming. They must be activated by pressing a button, unless an officers’ dashboard camera is activated because the two systems are synchronized.

When a bodycam is activated, it immediately begins recording audio and video. The prior 30 seconds, before a camera is activated, are also automatically stored, something Gross said the department added during their trial run after consulting with other departments.

“If I hopped out of a car and all of a sudden it becomes a wrestling match, I might not be able to turn (the camera) on right away,” Gross said. “But at least when I do, you’ve got 30 seconds back … (other departments) said there’s been incidents where that 30 seconds has been a lifesaver, where it shows things that happened before the camera went on and it helps back up the officers’ story.”

The cameras are docked at a charging station within the police department, and when they are the recorded, videos are uploaded to the department’s server using a hard-wired connection. Gross said as of right now the department does not need additional server space but said that additional storage options would be explored if they became necessary.

The department’s policy requires officers activate their camera “any time the officer believes it would be appropriate or valuable to record an incident” and defines some of those incidents where recordings should be made. They include: “All enforcement and investigative contacts including stops and field interview situations;” all traffic stops; any “self-initiated activity” by an officer; and “any contact that becomes adversarial after the initial contact in a situation that would not otherwise require recording.”

There are exceptions in the policy for situations where “exigent circumstances” make it unreasonable for an officer to activate their camera, or when the act of turning on the camera could endanger an officer.

Gross dismissed the possibility that officers could fail to activate their camera for any malicious purpose, or to obscure their behavior in the field.

“Are officers trying to hide anything? No. They’re not. They’re trying to stop a crime from happening,” Gross said. “People always want to cry conspiracy. There’s no conspiracy here.”

“I think it’s really going to show that we’re all human. I know that if I’m put in a certain situation, I’m going to say things that aren’t going to really come across as nice, if the right button’s pushed,” Gross said. “But you’re going to see that overall we’re a pretty professional group and we’re being treated in a very poor way. We don’t just do things. We react.”