DeKalb law enforcement talk body cameras as part of modern-day policing

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DeKALB – The DeKalb Police Department in 2020 will begin piloting a body camera program, with the goal that all 65 sworn officers have cameras clipped onto the front of their vests by 2021.

Interim Police Chief John Petragallo said the department will pilot several different models for the first six months of 2020 and give the patrol officers the opportunity to weigh in on their preference.

“Implementation may be a phased approach depending on finances,” Petragallo said. “But the important thing is that we embrace it, we’re working toward it, and if this is going to have to be a phased approach, if that gets it off the ground, then that’s what we do.”

The DeKalb Police Department had a big year in 2019, with former Chief Gene Lowery's retirement, the department's leadership role in transition, and a high-profile arrest that gained national media attention and included squad car dash camera footage and cellphone video which showed a DeKalb police sergeant wrestle an Aurora man to the ground, an arm wrapped tightly around his neck, and a DeKalb County Sheriff's Deputy tasing the man. A DeKalb County grand jury declined to bring charges against the officer, who remains on desk duty pending a departmental investigation.

It's the type of arrest that spawned public outcry and questions about what really happened. Neither the DeKalb County Sheriff's Department nor the Sycamore Police Department have body cameras.

Body cameras are one way to help access the scene, said DeKalb Police Cmdr. Craig Woodruff, who will help oversee the pilot program and its most expensive component.

“It’s the storage, that’s the huge cost,” Woodruff said.

Depending on what model DeKalb police decide upon, storage for the hours and hours of video and audio recording from the cameras – which will be on at all times but only begin to save recordings when the officer presses a button on the camera – will require either on-site or cloud storage.

The camera itself can cost into the $1,000 range, Woodruff said, modeling an Axon camera that will be part of the pilot.

Woodruff said in today’s digital world, it’s not uncommon – and actually expected – that most officers will be recorded by a passerby, or on the scene with a cell phone, a camera, or live-streamed on social media.

“Our department can’t wait,” Woodruff said. “Our officers really want these so you can see what we’re doing. We have nothing to hide. These things will just show exactly how we’re doing it.”

DeKalb pastor Joe Mitchell, of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, who's been an outspoken voice calling for change in local policing practices, said he's a fan of body cameras when used correctly.

“Will body cameras change anything? I don’t know,” Mitchell said. “We have some very good camera angles from someone’s cellphone that made this whole thing go viral, and it still didn’t make a difference.”

Part of DeKalb’s program will be modeled off the Elgin Police Department’s own body camera program, Petragallo said.

Elgin Police Cmdr. Jim Bisceglie has been with the department for about 19 years, and lives in Sycamore. In September 2015, Bisceglie said a core group of about 10 officers tested the cameras’ functionality, battery life and compatibility with patrol work, and left the decision up to the officers.

“At the end of the day to make the program successful, it wasn’t necessarily what the administration wanted, but what the officers felt most comfortable with,” Bisceglie said.

The Elgin Department was awarded a $250,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to get the program off the ground, Bisceglie said. The rest of the funding was approved by the Elgin City Council in December 2016, and is an annual occurrence.

Petragallo said he, too, expects DeKalb’s program to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars once it’s fully operational, which will ultimately be a decision up to the City Council, who already approved a Fiscal Year 2020 budget that includes the pilot program.

Like DeKalb, Northern Illinois University also will pilot a body camera program the first few months of 2020, with three Axon body cameras that will clip onto the officer’s front vest on patrol, NIU Police Cmdr. Don Rodman said. However, he said there are some things cameras don’t capture.

“The con of that is it’s capturing the image, but not everything else that’s going on,” Rodman said. “The stress of the incident, what the officer is dealing with. But I think that’s probably our overall goal for this project, is to have a better relationship with the community.”