McCarthy supports audio recording of police

January 30, 2012 4:11:01 PM PST
Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says he supports the video and audio recording of police officers who are on the job.

McCarthy talked to ABC 7 Monday about his position on the state's eavesdropping law, which makes the recording the audio of officers without their knowledge a felony.

McCarthy's comments come as a state representative works to change that law. Like many citizens, McCarthy did not know the specifics of the eavesdropping law.

The superintendent learned -- much to his chagrin -- that the eavesdropping law in Illinois is much more restrictive than what he was used to back east. It is his job to enforce the law as it stands, but this is clearly a law he is not fond of, and his voice as the head man of the state's largest law enforcement agency carries significant weight in this debate.

If you pull out your smart phone and record a police officer making an arrest on the public way, you are legally allowed under Illinois law to record the video, but recording the audio without police permission is a felony.

"This is a foreign concept to me," McCarthy said last week.

Chicago's police superintendent said at a seminar at Loyola University last week that he was unaware of the audio restriction in the Illinois eavesdropping law until after the Occupy Chicago arrests. He said Monday that it is a provision in the law that he does not see as particularly helpful.

"I kind of found that it was helpful to us to know to have a recording of exactly what had happened, what the conversations were, especially in situations where you're dealing with a large group of people who you're giving warnings to, who you're going to be arresting," said McCarthy.

The state's eavesdropping law is under legal challenge on several fronts, and now there is a legislative effort to change the law.

State Representative Elaine Nekritz is sponsoring legislation that would allow the audio "recording of a peace officer who is performing a public duty in a public place and speaking at a volume audible to the unassisted human ear."

"If a citizen is standing on a street corner and sees an incident developing with a police officer or anything...I don't think that police officer has an expectation that his actions and his conversation, which are audible, are going to be private," said Nekritz, who represents the 57th District.

Previous efforts to change the law have died in committee, but the legal challenges -- along with the weight of words from Chicago's police superintendent -- may change the dynamic.

McCarthy stopped short of saying he would support reversing the eavesdropping law.

"I see a lot of value in being able to have audio and video recording at the same time," McCarthy said when asked.

The longstanding argument from police against recording audio is that it could present safety threats, discourage people from volunteering information, or that brief clips could be used out of context in very public forums.

Dr. Ralph Brasath doesn't see much strength in that argument. He is a Loyola communications professor and also a documentarian who last November videotaped -- from a distance -- two policemen arresting a CTA turnstile jumper. Braseth himself was then handcuffed and told he had interfered with an investigation.

"He kept on talking to me about why that's not correct, why we shouldn't be doing that, how ," said Braseth.

Braseth was not charged, but the officer took his camera and deleted the video he had shot of the arrest.

The question, looking ahead, is very significant with the approach of the G8 and NATO summits in May. If there are protestors in large numbers, and they all have phones out recording video and audio, it is impractical to think police are going to be arresting them for violating the state's eavesdropping law.