Videos from police officers’ body-worn cameras are used as evidence not only in court cases but also in complaints against a police officer. Some even have value as training videos, said Evanston Police Commander Ryan Glew in a May 18 remote presentation to the local group Citizens Network of Protection.

Since 2019, nearly all Evanston police officers have had a body-worn camera, which, with limited exceptions, State law requires to be kept on during police-civilian interactions that involve law-enforcement.

The Evanston Police Department issues Axon body-worn cameras to its officers. (Image from RoundTable files)

“The Law Enforcement Officer-Worn Body Camera Act [50 ILCS 706/] requires officers to have the camera turned on when they’re responding to a call for service or engage in any law-enforcement activity or encounter,” said Cmdr. Glew.

Some of the few exceptions to this, he said, are when “you have a victim or witness [who] requested the camera [be] turned off; if you’re interested in interacting with the confidential informant; while engaged in community caretaking functions, [such as] staying on the perimeter of the scene, and redirecting some traffic or so on and so forth. But you’re not really interacting with anybody.”

There is no specific place on the body for the camera, Cmdr. Glew said, but it has to be accessible to be activated easily. Many officers wear them at chest-level. The Police Department regularly checks random samples of videos to ensure the cameras are used properly.

Cmdr. Glew acknowledged there are occasional glitches and different perspectives about body-worn cameras but said most of the time the footage “is an asset to everyone” and is “huge for training just not even our own but other jurisdictions.”

“Like anything that’s mechanical or electrical or whatever, there’s a failure rate, but they’re pretty good. … Glitches happen. And when they do, they’re viewed with a high degree of suspicion. The good car cameras are the same technology as a body worn camera. And they’re all supposed to sync. So if I go into a squad car, and have my body worn camera on, I have the forward-facing camera on and on the backward-facing camera. In theory, all those cameras should sync with one another. So when I go into the program to look, they’ll pull off on the same time.”

Although State law does not require it, Evanston Police Department policy is to obtain consent to record certain interactions. “When we come in contact with them, we tell them that they’re being audio and video recorded. And then if they want to say that they don’t want to – if it’s allowed by law – then we will move on. Some people, depending on circumstances, can’t withdraw their consent.”

Camera On, Camera Off

A body-worn camera will record the 30 seconds prior to its being turned on, Cmdr. Glew said. The light on top of the camera blinks red and a tone is heard periodically when the camera is on. Emergency lights and Tasers, once activated, will also activate cameras within a certain radius. “I think you’re going to see more of that technology. Whereas if an officer has to do this immediately, then we’re going to have this passive activation for the body worn camera.”

Cmdr. Glew said consequences for officers who turn off their cameras or do not comply with the departmental policy are “severe.”

Conversely, civilians may record police activity, provided that they remain at a safe distance from the law-enforcement situation and do not try to obstruct the officer from dong his or her job.

Karen Courtwright, who attended the session, pressed the issue. “We have seen body worn footage in Evanston [of] police officers telling folks not to film – to back up [because] they’re in the way.” She said the distance civilians are told to maintain when filing a police action is “pretty debatable. So how broad is the officer’s discretion? If I’m 10 feet away from you, am I no longer in your way? Or do I have to go across the street, where I’m 30 feet away from you?”

Ten feet is “probably too close,” said Cmdr. Glew, adding, “Is 10 feet too close for Karen to be to me? No. But when you look at each individual circumstance of what’s going on, and, if there are seven officers around for some reason and somebody is standing 15 feet away recording. Can you really articulate saying ‘No, they’re too close?’ Probably not. … Is there a bright line that says 21 feet is how far away you’d have to be? I think it’s what you can articulate based on the objective and subjective factors.”

He added that footage recorded or private devices could become evidence in a court case.  

Footage Used for Complaint Investigations

The footage from the cameras is typically stored for 90 days. It will be kept longer if a complaint has been filed with the Office of Professional Standards, if a police office has used force, or if “death or great bodily harm occurred to a person in the record,” among other reasons, said Cmdr. Glew.

The Evanston Police Department will take complaints, including anonymous complaints, for up to two years after an incident.

“The body-worn camera is important in these investigations, because it basically becomes a witness,” said Cmdr. Glew. Because there is no affidavit supporting an anonymous complaint against a police officer, the body-worn camera footage becomes an investigative tool.

“The footage assists with providing context and tones that isn’t captured in print. … Both [the written report and the camera footage] might be factual. But what’s going to bring things into focus is the tone in context, whether that’s the tone of the officers, the tone of the complainant in the context of the call – that can’t be captured in the report.”

Under certain circumstances the footage will be released to the public at large or to a civilian who asks for it or through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. “If there’s an arrest, it’s easier to FOIA that footage than if there’s no arrest, because then everybody needs to get consent for it to be released,” Cmdr. Glew said.

He said the Department received several requests for the video of the police shooting on Howard Street of a suspect who had driven to Evanston from Chicago, reportedly on a shooting spree. “And due to the nature of the incident involved, with death as an officer-involved shooting, that was released pretty quickly. It was released in about a week and a half.” The City’s Legal Department reviews most requests for body-worn-camera footage.

Under two changes to State law effective July 1, police officers will not have to be informed of the names of complainants before the administrative hearing, and complainants will no longer be required to file a sworn affidavit.  

The Citizens Network of Protection plans to continue its series of conversations about police accountability.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...

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