By Samah Assad and Chris Hacker
CHICAGO (CBS) — The Chicago Police Department has been slow to make critical changes that could improve its taxpayer-funded body camera program, the city’s watchdog found.
The department made little progress on changes recommended by the Chicago Inspector General (IG) two years ago, the oversight agency said in a report released Thursday. In 2019, the IG found lax oversight by supervisors who are required to check officers’ body camera videos, and an oversight committee that failed to meet regularly.
The IG made a series of recommendations, including that CPD take “corrective measures” to ensure lieutenants do their required reviews of body camera videos. Those reviews are a key accountability measure designed to make sure officers use their cameras properly.
Since 2017, nearly every CPD officer has been equipped with a body camera. The technology cost taxpayers more than $16 million, and department policy outlines clear requirements for turning on and using the cameras.
Breakdowns of that policy were well-documented by CBS 2 and the IG since the cameras were rolled out. Lieutenants often don’t check, despite evidence officers sometimes don’t turn on their cameras during every day interactions with civilians and during bad raids repeatedly reported by CBS 2.
Among the IG’s recent findings is CPD hasn’t created a standardized system for random reviews – a key step needed to reduce the chance supervisors will cherry pick videos officers they know are following the rules.
Previously, the IG discovered some lieutenants picked shorter recordings or watched videos from officers who they knew complied with the policy, creating a risk of bias.
The department told the IG it’s in the process of testing applications to automate the random selection process. But so far, CPD hasn’t made the changes.
Deborah Witzburg said CPD piloted a software solution.
“Which would have addressed that but got all the way through the pilot program, but then at the end discovered that the solution was cost prohibitive,” she said.
“If you’re cherry picking, if you’re going to your go to people to always look at their videos because they’re already doing a good job, you will not get the true picture of what’s happening,” said David A. Harris, a law professor with the University of Pittsburgh.
Harris, a policing expert who has worked with other departments to improve their policies, also pointed to issues with CPD’s Body Worn Camera Evaluation Committee.
The IG also questioned how the department handles reviews of incidents that either weren’t recorded at all or have missing video. CBS 2 found those types of incidents happen frequently. A data analysis of more than 300,000 investigatory stops by CPD revealed nearly 20 percent didn’t have body camera video.
CBS 2’s November investigation, Left in the Dark, examined how missing body camera video can damage trust between residents and police.
One such resident, Marcus Smith, was held at gunpoint by a CPD officer while walking to his mother’s car on Thanksgiving Day in 2017. The officer repeatedly told Smith and his mom that body camera video would justify the incident, but the cameras didn’t start rolling until after he holstered his gun.
“I just got a gun pointed at me just for walking,” Smith told CBS 2. “I was dressed up … it was like I was going to church dressed up for Sunday mass.”
CBS 2’s analysis also found where a person was stopped impacts whether there will be video evidence of what happened.
According to the IG’s report, CPD said it is “committed to developing a new dashboard” to audit incidents like these, however the IG said “CPD gave no indication regarding how policy and procedure would be incorporated into this dashboard.”
CPD added training on random reviews for new lieutenants and executive officers, the report noted, and the department sent the IG a training bulletin that details the requirement to randomly review one video per watch. But the IG wrote the bulletin “simply restates the policy” and does not provide any additional guidance to lieutenants for how they should randomly select videos.
The accountability breakdowns extend up the department’s chain of command. CPD’s Body Worn Camera Evaluation Committee is tasked with overseeing the program and meeting quarterly to discuss issues and performance. But the IG found the committee has only met four times in the last year and a half.
“Those meetings have to take place,” said Harris. “If we let them slide just because they’re inconvenient the system can easily break down.”
In the times they did meet, the committee documented instances where lieutenants didn’t watch the correct number of videos every month, according to reports obtained by CBS 2. In its most recent report, the committee documented similar issues.
So as of right now a supervisor does not really know if there is missing body camera footage from his or her shift.
“Not unless it comes to their attention by some other way,” said Witzburg.
In its conclusion, the IG cited CPD’s own body camera policy, which says “Audio and visual recordings from the body-worn camera (BWC) can improve the quality and reliability of investigations and increase transparency.”
But, the IG noted, the cameras can only achieve those aims if the department adheres to its own policies.
“The quality of field operations cannot be improved, nor transparency achieved, without meaningful review and analysis of BWC footage and what it may capture and reveal about the practices of the Department and its members,” the report said. “Without such review and analysis, CPD is missing critical transparency and accountability opportunities.”
CBS 2 asked CPD about the report, including what steps they’re taking to ensure the policy is followed going forward, as well as a timeline for when new policy changes will be implemented.