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Small PDs worry about cost of BWCs required by Ill. police reform bill

“I get where the legislature is coming from. The problem I have is the unfunded mandate”

By Ben Szalinski
The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — One of the key components of the Legislative Black Caucus’ police reform package is the requirement that all Illinois police officers be equipped with body worn cameras by 2025, but local police chiefs are worried about paying for the mandate.

House Bill 3653 was the criminal justice pillar of the Black Caucus’ legislative agenda that passed during the lame duck legislative session on Jan. 13. In addition to requiring body cameras, the bill also ended cash bail, reformed use of force by police and increased training requirements for officers.

“I get where the legislature is coming from. The problem I have is the unfunded mandate,” said Chatham Police Chief Vern Foli.

According to the bill, which is awaiting Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature, police departments in municipalities like Chatham and Rochester with less than 50,000 residents need to equip all officers with cameras by 2025.

“I think we’re committed to having it not be an unfunded mandate, and it’s a concern that we share with the law enforcement community,” the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D- Chicago, said after Jim Black, President of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, raised concerns about the cost during a Jan. 10 committee hearing.

[READ: How to buy body-worn cameras (eBook)]

Despite requests from police groups during committee to appropriate funds to help police departments cover the cost, the bill passed without providing assistance.

Without funding, police departments, particularly smaller ones with limited resources and funding, are facing steep cost increases.

The Senate sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Elgie Sims, D- Chicago, said he expects lawmakers to continue discussions throughout the year to find a funding mechanism.

“We’ve got time to figure out if there’s an additional funding source,” Sims said.

The Springfield Police Department pays about $1,000 per camera each year, according to Deputy Chief Josh Stuenkel. Additional costs are incurred from storing the camera footage and having an employee to manage the cameras and freedom of information requests. The department has an employee dedicated to handling FOIA request, which costs about $40,000 annually. They must review footage and make appropriate redactions before releasing video — a time-consuming process.

The SPD had a budget of $51.3 million in fiscal year 2021 with 242 officers.

Rochester Police Chief Kaleb Johnson said the cost of purchasing , storing and managing the cameras were all things he was going to have to consider to comply with the law.

Rochester has 12 officers with a budget of $859,450.

“You’re going to have some communities that can’t afford this that won’t comply, and you’ll have some sort of litigation. The only other recourse is pass (the cost) to taxpayers, and residents have to pay for this now,” Black said.

The cost of body cameras depends on numerous factors. In addition to the cost Johnson mentioned, other factors such as what the camera does can make some cameras more expensive than others. Black said vendors offer a range of options from standard cameras to more expensive ones with more capabilities, such as turning on automatically at the sound of gunfire or GPS location.

According to a 2018 report by the Police Executive Forum, the cost for a single camera per year has a wide range. The device could cost as little as $120. But when adding other factors like storage, the cost tops $1,000. While Springfield Police pay about $1,000 annually for a single camera, Phoenix, Arizona police paid $2,883 per camera.

The bill will not punish departments that fail to meet the deadline for compliance. However, those that meet the deadline get priority for the Law Enforcement Camera Grant Act. Sims called this an “incentive” and noted this does not mean departments have to find the money for cameras themselves even though the bill did not specifically appropriate funds for it.

“There is a ton of misinformation about this legislation which says it will hinder the work of law enforcement officers — and that is simply not true. Most of the pieces of this measure are already in place at many law enforcement agencies,” Sims said in a statement.

“We are not opposed to body worn cameras. We believe they’re going to help us more than hurt us,” said Black, who is also the police chief of Crystal Lake in McHenry County.

“We’re all about transparency. We know there is one or two bad apples out there, and we want to get rid of those bad apples too,” Foli said.

Foli also raised concerns about properly following the mandate, such as who will have to wear a camera.

“Am I going to be required to outfit my detectives?” he wondered.

The bill says “all law enforcement officers” must wear the camera for a department to be in compliance.

Chatham has 17 officers and a police budget around $3 million.

There is also concern from police about transparency with the body cameras and allowing officers to review footage.

According to the bill, only an officer’s supervisor may review body camera footage when writing a report — a change to the current law that allows both the recording officer and a supervisor to view footage when writing a report.

“Why wouldn’t you allow that officer to review the footage to make sure what they’re writing is accurate?” Black said.

“If an individual made a complaint against an officer, they don’t have an opportunity to view the footage,” Sims said. “It puts law enforcement and people on the same footing.”

Police departments are still in the initial process of determining what the bill means for them and how they will be paying for body cameras. .

“Unfortunately, at this point I feel like I have more questions than answers myself, but I am continually monitoring the current situation and researching our options,” Johnson said.

(c)2021 The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill.