Last Wednesday, March 23, the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) announced that it will begin requiring its officers to wear body cameras. It said in a statement that this change is part of “an ongoing commitment to the safety of officers and the people the department serves.”
The statement went on to say that the UCPD would begin implementing this program in April, with 20 officers receiving the cameras. They would then expand the program so that every officer will receive a camera by the beginning of the 2016–17 academic year.
The statement tied this decision to significant steps the UCPD has made over the past year toward increased transparency.
“Last June, the University’s safety and security website expanded to include extensive additional information about UCPD activities, including a daily report on all traffic stops and field interviews by UCPD officers,” the statement said. “In addition, arrest records are now available upon request and the UCPD’s general orders are available for review in person, by appointment.”
UChicago alumnus and Illinois State Representative Christian Mitchell thinks that the new policy is an “encouraging step” toward restoring what he sees as waning faith in police departments across the country. Mitchell advanced legislation last year that would have required the UCPD to adopt some of the public-access requirements that apply to public police agencies.
Tristan Bock-Hughes, a third-year student in the College and member of the Campaign for Equitable Policing, an organizing community whose aim is to “end racial profiling in the University of Chicago’s private police force,” is skeptical of the UCPD’s new policy.
“Although this is going to be seen as a progressive move by a lot of people in elite power positions and by a lot of people who support police, for us what this move is classified as is the University once again putting their resources into a police department instead of putting their resources into bettering the safety of the community…. The University is once again investing in triage as opposed to primary care.”
“Community members have expressed strong support to me for implementing body-worn cameras. We believe such cameras can be valuable in promoting public safety, as well as professionalism and accountability among officers. I would also note that national police accountability and civil rights groups have expressed the view that body-worn cameras can be a helpful tool in protecting the public,” UCPD Police Chief Fountain Walker said.
The “primary care” Bock-Hughes would like to see instead includes the rehabilitation of broken streetlights, which he argues is correlated with a reduction in crime, and a widespread effort from the University to breathe economic life into the surrounding neighborhoods.
That said, Bock-Hughes hopes surveillance will change UCPD behavior for the better.
“[The UCPD officers] are going to be more careful when they’re being watched. Which is good, we want them to be constantly second-guessing, like ‘do I really have to stop this guy? Do I really need to do this?’ In that alone, I think that body cameras are going to be helpful.”
Campuses across the country have adopted similar policies. Arizona State and Wake Forest universities have implemented a body camera program, and the entire University of California system has committed itself to adopting one by the end of 2016.
An ongoing study from the University of South Florida started in 2014 suggests that body cameras significantly reduced the number of complaints the Orlando Police Department (OPD) received. Although many officers were initially skeptical about whether or not these cameras would allow them to do their jobs better, by the end of the study about 75 percent of the officers who wore them said that they should be adopted by the rest of the agency.
An American Civil Liberties Union spokesperson suggested that these cameras prompt restraint from both police and citizens.
“It has a calming effect on everyone involved when they realize their behavior is being memorialized for all to see,” she said.