Mandatory Body Cameras Come Equipped with an Abundance of Problems

by Michael Castaldo, Jr. and Megan Lamb

The massive Police Reform Bill (P.A. 101-0652) that was adopted in the waning hours of the last legislative session involves numerous changes to the way policing is handled in Illinois. One of the most significant provisions is the mandatory use of body cameras by all law enforcement officers. That change could become a logistical and disciplinary nightmare for municipalities.

While a law regulating the use of officer-worn body cameras has been on the books in Illinois since 2016, the Police Reform Bill amends the current Law Enforcement Officer-Worn Body Camera Act (50 ILCS 706/10 et seq.) to make the law applicable to every law enforcement officer in the state. All officers will be required to wear and turn on body cameras at all times when in uniform and responding to calls, or when engaged in any law enforcement activity that occurs while the officer is off-duty. There are some exceptions to this requirement, notably when the officer is in a patrol car with a working camera, or at a correctional facility with a working camera system, and in certain situations where a victim or other members of the community request the officer turn the camera off.

This amendment to the law phases in mandatory body cameras across the state over the next few years. Departments with smaller population bases are allowed additional time to implement body cameras, with implementation deadlines set based on population size:

  • Municipalities and counties with a population of 500,000 or more: January 1, 2022
  • Municipalities and counties with a population of 100,000 up to 500,000: January 1, 2023
  • Municipalities and counties with a population of 50,000 up to 100,000: January 1, 2024
  • Municipalities and counties with a population of less than 50,000: January 1, 2025

Lack of Funding to Implement the Mandate

With no appropriations tied to this mandate, municipalities could be forced to shell out large sums in order to comply with the Act. At a time when municipal budgets are getting tighter and tighter, and a pandemic has done serious damage to local economies, this lack of funding for mandatory body cameras could put a strain on municipal budgets. Along with the cost of the cameras themselves, the price of which is wide-ranging, there is also the cost of training officers on camera use and the ongoing cost of video storage. While there is a grant program available to departments, the grant would only cover reimbursing the cost of purchasing cameras and training officers in camera use, and would not include the price of storage. For the 2020 grant application period, reimbursement was up to $895 per body camera and $5,752 per in-car camera.

As of the publishing of this article, the 2021 application period has not yet been announced. Any department that opts to contract with a camera provider and pay a monthly or annual service fee for camera use and storage instead of outright purchasing its own cameras would not be eligible for grant money. In order to incentivize departments into compliance rather than penalize them for non-compliance, legislators wrote into the law preference in the grant application process for departments that follow the requirements of the Act. However, as with any grant funding, there is no guarantee that every department that applies for a grant will receive one, doubtless leaving some departments with no choice but to eat the cost of this potentially very expensive mandate.

Burdensome Record Keeping Requirements

Along with the expense that municipalities might be forced to incur in order to implement mandatory body cameras, the Police Reform Bill also imposes onerous record-keeping requirements. All body camera footage must be kept for a 90-day period and then destroA group of police officers Description automatically generated with low confidenceyed unless the department opts to keep the footage for training purposes. Any footage that involves a “flagged” encounter will have to be kept for two years, or, if the video is to be used in in a criminal, civil or administrative proceeding, until final disposition and order from the court. Some examples of flagged encounters are when an officer’s firearm was discharged during an encounter, if a death or great bodily harm befell an individual during the encounter, if a formal or informal complaint has been filed regarding the filmed encounter, or if the officer is being investigated for possible misconduct. Footage regarding the last two examples would have to be kept indefinitely.

A new provision in the Local Records Act (50 ILCS 205/25) introduced in the Police Reform Bill requires that all records related to “complaints, investigations and adjudications of police conduct” be permanently retained and prohibits the destruction of these records. This record preservation requirement includes not just paper records and reports, but also body camera footage from any encounter related to the complaint. The process of keeping certain footage into perpetuity will no doubt add to the considerable cost that departments will already be incurring on account of mandatory body cameras.

Harsh Punishment for Minor Infractions?

Thanks to another new provision introduced in the Police Reform Bill and aimed at compelling officers to comply with internal investigations, any law enforcement officer who knowingly and intentionally “fails to comply with State law or their department policy requiring the use of officer-worn body cameras” could be found guilty of a Class 3 felony, punishable by up to five years in jail. The Criminal Code has been amended to add a section criminalizing “law enforcement misconduct” (720 ILCS 5/33-9). The law largely concentrates on officer conduct related to investigations, and specifically includes misuse of officer-worn body cameras. The weight and seriousness of this law as applied to body camera use will likely depend on how it is interpreted by courts. A narrow reading of the above-quoted line suggests that only officers who intentionally refuse to wear a body camera could be subject to punishment, but a more generous reading of the same line would suggest an officer that fails to follow even more mundane and administrative department policies regarding officer-worn body cameras, such as placement and positioning of a body camera, could be convicted of a Class 3 felony.