The Oak Park Citizen Police Oversight Commission (CPOC) says that the failure by Oak Park police officers to consistently activate the audio portion of the department’s dashboard camera recording system is “troubling” and recommended in a report accepted by the village board on Sept. 6 that police department leadership and the commission actively review all such instances and initiate corrective action for the next six months.

However, in a memo attached to the report in the Sept. 6 village board meeting packet, staff recommended against that joint review, because it is not in line with the ordinance under which CPOC operates.

Trustees voted without discussion to accept, as part of the consent agenda, the commission report and staff’s recommendation against the commission’s request for additional review.

Village President Vicki Scaman said the failure to discuss the report separately was an error on the part of the village board.

“The village manager and I both agree that these reports, by habit, should not be on the consent agenda moving forward,” said Scaman.

Not discussing the report was a “shortsighted move,” Scaman said, caused by an abundance of other time-consuming items up for discussion and vote on Sept. 6. Since the village board returned from its August hiatus, the board’s meetings have consistently surpassed four hours.

“That’s not really a great excuse,” she said.

CPOC discovered the failure on numerous occasions of Oak Park police to turn on the audio portion of squad car dashcams during a review of citizen complaints against police officers lodged between November 2021 and June 2022.

The commission found that officers failed to turn on the audio recording component in nine of the 13 citizen complaints reviewed by the committee from November 2021 to June 2022.

 Dashcams automatically begin recording video when police lights are activated. However, officers need to manually turn on the audio component when responding to a call.

It reportedly became a department requirement earlier this year that officers must activate the audio recording device in preparation for officers being outfitted with body cameras, according to Interim Chief Shatonya Johnson. The requirement was reportedly put in place prior to the departure of Chief LaDon Reynolds.

The failure of officers to activate the audio portion was dismaying to the committee, which included in its report to the village board that the “high occurrence of [dashcam] violation is troubling to CPOC members, and while we acknowledge that OPPD leadership is taking steps to remedy this situation, we are concerned that there are many more occurrences of failure to activate [dashcam] than what is reported here.”

Wednesday Journal is awaiting response to a public information request for the total number of instances in which officers within the Oak Park Police Department have neglected to activate the audio recording element of their dashcams.

The village’s policy regarding dashcam recordings dates back to 2013, but it was amended in February 2021 and updated again in August 2022. Specifics of the changes made were not included in the policy itself. Wednesday Journal has reached out to Johnson for more information.

CPOC was given the authority to review dashcam footage for citizen complaints in October of last year at the direction of Scaman. Citizen complaints lodged against officers are investigated internally by police leadership.

The results of those investigations are then reviewed by CPOC, which decides whether more investigation is needed or to uphold the internal findings. In giving the commission the authority to review dashcam footage, its members have more information on which to base their recommendations rather than “just taking a summary from our police chief,” said Scaman.

In the nine documented instances of dashcam audio recorders not being activated, the officers were not acting out of willful disobedience, according to Oak Park spokesperson Erik Jacobsen, on behalf of Interim Chief Shatonya Johnson.

“There were NOT any cases where officers were found to intentionally not turn on the camera,” Jacobsen wrote in an email to Wednesday Journal.

Rather, he said the officers simply forgot to turn them on either because they were in a rush or because they are still getting used to the new procedure.

The number of department-wide violations of the policy has not been provided to the village board or CPOC, the latter of which is only privy to information attached to citizen complaints.

CPOC Chairman Donovan Pepper told Wednesday Journal the committee has requested that the number of violations be made available to the village board.

Pepper said he believes village staff’s recommendation against the commission’s joint review with police leadership on dashcam activation violations for the next six months was the result of miscommunication between the committee and village staff.

CPOC meant to recommend the village board be provided with that data, not the committee, according to Pepper.

“It was my understanding that we were asking for the village [board] to have that information,” he said.

Pepper was not aware of the staff memo nor that the village board had not discussed the CPOC report.

Failure to activate the audio dashcam recording system can result in an officer being reprimanded, counseled or coached. However, the requirement was not meant to be punitive, according to Kira Tchang, the village’s human resources director.

“It was really more just around the development of those skills in anticipation of the body-worn cameras,” she said.

State law mandates that municipalities with over 50,000 but fewer than 100,000 residents, including Oak Park, must outfit their law enforcement agencies with officer-worn body cameras by January 2024.

The village board approved a $1.4 million, five-year purchasing agreement on Oct. 3 for the purchase of the cameras, as well as new in-car video recording systems and Tasers. The agreement includes storage and redaction software for the footage.

Staff is searching for grant opportunities to help pay for the body cameras, according to Johnson, who told the village board that the addition of body cameras will help in CPOC’s oversight process.

“I do believe that this affords an opportunity for CPOC to look at and have a clearer understanding of what’s going on when we receive citizen complaints,” she said.

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