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WNIJ's summary of news items around our state.

More Small Towns Considering Police Body Cameras

The recent controversy over the arrest of Sandra Bland and her death in police custody has only added to the focus on police brutality issues in the U.S. Police body cameras have been a hot topic, particularly since Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, almost a year ago.

Cities with larger departments are starting to utilize the cameras, but even small towns are considering them -- if they don't use them already.  

Kevin Moore is the police chief for Granville, a Putnam County community. Although his department has only seven officers, city officials wanted the police to do a trial run with the tech company that supplies cameras for the police squad cars. Those dashboard cameras alone immediately reduced the number of complaints.  

"At the beginning, people would come in and complain, and I say, 'Well, it's all on video, do you want to sit down and watch it?'” Moor said. “Everybody says no."  

Matthew Feeney is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute, a think tank based out of Washington, D.C.   

Feeney says the size of police departments in Illinois is an interesting case. Departments range from one part-time officer to more than 20,000. On average, each community within the state has about 10 full-time police officers.  

"Almost half of law enforcement agencies in the United States are fewer than 10 full-time personnel,"  Feeney said.

Feeney says costs can make or break a community considering body cameras. He says towns have to consider how expensive equipment and archiving available video footage can be.   

"Given the state of technology at the moment, the more open a public records law is and the more widely-used body cameras are, the more expensive a body camera policy will probably be," Feeney said.  

That's absolutely true for Police Chief Thomas Smith in Mendota, in the northwest corner of LaSalle County. His department of 20 officers was one of the first to test body cameras.   

But now, the department's three-year trial period is coming to an end. Smith says he absolutely plans to expand the budget to keep the cameras, but he says they're not cheap.  

"I'd say on average we probably pay about $2,000 a year right now,” Smith said. “I'm expecting that to go up quite a bit."  

No specific incident inspired the Mendota police department to buy the cameras, but -- despite the problems of storing footage -- Smith says he's all for officers wearing body cameras. And he says the officers like wearing them, too.   

Mendota officers have multiple options in cameras, since an obstructed view could be a problem if an officer draws a gun or writes on a notepad. Smith says the cameras actually have gotten his officers out of trouble more than in -- particularly after a call about an aggressive dog. Smith says the department received calls about this specific dog in the past.  

But this was a unique situation. The dog was eventually gunned down and the owners threatened to sue. But one officer -- only one of three -- remembered to turn on his body camera during that call. Smith says that particular video showed the officers took necessary actions and ultimately did the right thing. 

Smith says consequences can vary for officers who forget to turn on their cameras.  

"I can't say that this is exactly what's going to happen if you don't turn your camera on, because it all depends on if this is the first time it happened, or if it's the tenth time it's happened,” Smith said. “So far, we haven't gotten past one."  

While privacy issues and financial cost might be a drawback to implementing body cameras, Feeney says police departments could still benefit from them. He says it's still too soon to gauge on a large scale whether body cameras affect police behavior, for better or worse.

However, Smith says he sees a change in behavior now that his officers know he can see them through a video lens.

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