Nothing but praise for Forest Park’s village government and police department for moving quickly, and way ahead of a new state law, to outfit all officers with body-worn cameras.
After a trial run with a handful of officers that began last spring, as of Nov. 1 all on-duty officers will be equipped with the new technology. The limited rollout, which began in April under former chief Tom Aftanas, allowed bugs to be worked out but also gave the department time to tweak the technology in worthy ways.
For instance, based on experience in other departments, Forest Park adjusted the devices so that anytime a camera is activated it automatically captures the 30-seconds of video that preceded activation. That half-minute might reflect important background on an unfolding encounter with a citizen or a criminal action.
It is clear that having a video and audio recording of every encounter between Forest Park officers and citizens will benefit both parties. It provides both documentation and accountability to everyone involved.
In an interview with the Review, Ken Gross, interim chief for just a few more days before his appointment becomes permanent, makes clear that the video might be used in a number of ways. Certainly it can be evidentiary in court cases or determinative in charges placed by the state’s attorney. It can also be used to review the conduct of officers in other less criminal circumstances. Less-than- optimal attitudes and practices displayed on video, sometimes in response to citizen complaints, might be used to improve officers’ interactions with the public. Gross said it could result in “retraining” for an officer not living up to department standards.
That’s all good.
Gross also believes the video will show how his officers are often on the receiving end of hostile, rude behavior by ordinary citizens. That would include out-of-control behavior outside some bars on Madison Street this past year, although it’s unclear how Gross might share such out-of-bounds video with the public to prove his point.
We think the ultimate value of body-worn cameras is de-escalation of encounters between cops and citizens under any circumstance. Every traffic stop is stressful for citizens. Most encounters with a police officer ramp up adrenaline. Police need to understand this, and citizens should also recognize that police officers are human beings, albeit armed and given wide latitude in enforcement.
Knowing that every encounter is now recorded will hopefully motivate officers to improve their people skills, and help citizens respond with more empathy to the challenges of being a cop. If cameras are used as a teaching tool for officers, the relationship between police and the community can only improve.
That may prove the ultimate power of this technology.