Christopher J. Schneider: Body Cameras Alone Will Not Lead to Police Reform Across Illinois

Governor Pritzker recently signed House Bill 3653 (HB 3653), a sweeping police reform bill into law. Also called the Police and Criminal Justice Reform bill, the legislation, among other things, requires every police officer in Illinois to wear a body camera by 2025. Parts of the bill have received criticisms, but the idea of outfitting body-worn cameras upon thousands of Illinois officers across the state seems to enjoy a general consensus as a welcome police reform measure.

HB 3653 is 764 pages, yet just 12 pages of the bill are exclusive to police body-worn cameras. Such sparse attention to the cameras that are widely anticipated to bring about major changes to policing across Illinois is worrisome and at a cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers.

Regarding the forthcoming implementation of body cameras many seem delighted with the belief in the approaching age of police transparency and accountability, but neither should be assumed.

It is perhaps telling of the assumptions made about police body cameras that neither transparency nor accountability appear once in the 12 pages of HB 3653 specifically concerning the devices. But these two words were used on numerous occasions in reference to HB 3653 by reform advocates and appear in media discussions about equipping police with body cameras across Illinois.

There is little evidence that the cameras actually improve transparency especially since there is no consensus between police management, politicians, or the public about what is meant precisely by “transparency.” HB 3653 indicates that “upon request” and in certain circumstances will law enforcement disclose a body camera recording (subject to the Freedom of Information Act and relevant privacy rights).

Central to transparency is public awareness of police misconduct. Illinois law enforcement must exercise proactive transparency, in other words, they should clearly acknowledge their actions publicly each and every time misconduct is believed to have occurred, whether there is a request for a recording or not. Otherwise, “transparency” simply remains another political buzzword.

The cameras themselves will not reform policing, but clear and good policy might.

The research on the efficacy of police body cameras is mixed. Police use of force and citizen complaints are the most frequent outcome measures examined. Across experimental locations in the U.S. and elsewhere body cameras appeared to increase police force in some locations while decreasing it in others. Similar mixed findings appear regarding citizen complaints. Let us also not forget that the officers who killed George Floyd were all wearing body cameras.

A review of HB 3653 reveals that officers have the ability to turn their body camera on and off. The means to switch the cameras on and off complicates notions of accountability.

The bill does have a provision that prohibits altering, tampering, or destroying of recorded footage. HB 3653 also outlines when recordings can be used to discipline law enforcement officers but says very little here about the consequences for failure to activate a camera and how such circumstances will be treated by police management.

The police work for the community. Before equipping any more police in Illinois with body cameras it is imperative that community led efforts detail their expectations of transparency and accountability and that this becomes policy that governs the use of body-worn cameras. Elected officials must then ensure that law enforcement comply with these public expectations. It is only then that some semblance of community driven police reform might be achieved through the use of body-worn cameras.

Christopher J. Schneider (NEIU Alumnus BA 2002) is professor of sociology at Brandon University and author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media. This piece was originally published in The Daily Journal.