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Elgin police at forefront of statewide body cam effort

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As police departments throughout Illinois are developing their use of officer body-worn cameras, the Elgin Police Department is on the leading edge. (WLS)

A new law that's only two weeks old is shaping how police departments throughout Illinois are developing their use of officer body-worn cameras. The Elgin Police Department is at the forefront of the body cam effort.

Over the years, veteran police officer Rob Hartman has seen a lot of change. Now, he's wearing a piece of it: a clip-on body worn camera.

"I like the body camera. Really, 20 years ago, I might have thought different - what's going on with this? But technology has changed, policing has changed, and this is another tool we get to use," Hartman said.

Sgt. Hartman is one of 10 Elgin police officers who are in the fourth month of field testing a variety of body cameras. How they are used in Elgin and every police department in Illinois is now governed by a brand new state law.

"It gives us our foundation, our framework, and we're just kind of working and building on top of that," Cmdr. Ana Lalley said.

The new law gives police a legal road map for the use of body cams. It is both clear and complex. The law prescribes that all body cam footage be stored for no more than 90 days, then destroyed, unless it involves a citizen complaint, a use of force, an arrest, or is evidence in a criminal case.

The law says the body cameras "must be turned on at all times" when an officer is responding to a call for service, except when there is an expectation of privacy, such as inside someone's home.

"I'll make notification: 'This is a body camera, and I am recording the incident. This is going to get audio and video,' and if there's anyone who doesn't want to speak to me they have the opportunity to tell us, 'I don't want to be on camera,'" Hartman said.

But an officer can overrule that if he or she feels there's a pressing need or a threatened crime. There's an infinite number of scenarios that are not clear cut.

"So we're trying through our test program, let's talk about those things and let's try to give our officers, when we implement the actual cameras to more officers, let's
have some of those answers beforehand," Lalley said.

Where do you store all that video - on a server, in the cloud? Elgin hasn't decided yet. Whatever the choice, it's not cheap. And part of this effort is managing public expectation, for body camera are a merely a tool.

"It's not going to take away all mistrust that anyone might have with a police officer, but it's going to help," Hartman said.

There are three police departments in Illinois that received federal grant money to develop body cam programs: Chicago, Lake County and Elgin.

Elgin is ahead of the curve, a position it welcomes. The intent there is to end the test period in the spring and then equip the entire department - over 100 officers - with body cams later this year, perhaps toward the end of summer.
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