Photo by Javier Govea/Staff

The Oak Park village board received the first report from its Citizen Police Oversight Committee since the conclusion of the months-long equity assessment of the village’s police department by consultant BerryDunn.

CPOC’s semiannual report, presented at the board’s Feb. 21 meeting, provided insight into how efforts to fortify the commission’s oversight powers have broadened the village’s ability to supervise policing. The report is altogether more expansive, especially when compared to the one that directly preceded it, not least of which because it is the first report to assess the village’s use of license plate recorders, known as Flock cameras.

The village’s eight controversial cameras were approved by the village board last April without affording its committees the opportunity to provide input and without seeking the counsel of BerryDunn. This is also the second report since CPOC was granted the authority to review footage and audio recordings associated with citizen complaints.

Reviewing the footage has been helpful to CPOC, Chair Donovan Pepper shared with the board, because the committee is not involved in investigations of citizen complaints. Investigations are handled internally by four or five sworn police officers and once completed, the chief or a commander make a recommendation to CPOC. Personal information of citizens is redacted in the complaints, as well as in audio and video recordings, before going to CPOC.

The prevailing issue in the last CPOC report, released in October, of officers failing to activate the audio recording device on their dashcams remains an area in need of improvement. In the last six months, there were a total of 9 instances where officers did not switch on audio recorders, according to the report. This policy was enacted to prepare the department for body cameras, which they will get next year. That the problem persisted across two consecutive CPOC reports was not lost on Trustee Chibuike Enyia.

Police Chief Shatonya Johnson, however, had a fairly simple explanation for the lapse – human error. This was the same reasoning previously provided.

“If there’s a situation where it’s perceived as a hot call, where we need officers to respond rapidly, sometimes officers don’t turn on their mic pack and it’s by accident,” Johnson reiterated.

In other occasions, officers merely forget to activate the audio recorder. Additionally, the devices can only detect audio within a short distance, Johnson said, so when the officer is away from the vehicle, the noise cannot be deciphered and recorded by dashcams.

Failing to activate the audio recording device on dashcams once results in disciplinary action in the form of coaching and counseling with “an education component” to ensure officers understand the policy and why it has been enacted. This approach has yielded positive results.

“When we address it, we usually don’t see it happen again,” said Johnson. “If it does, it gets progressively worse, as far as the discipline goes.”

The dashcams will be retired once the department obtains officer body cameras – a prospect the chief is looking forward to due to the low quality of dashcam recordings. Body cameras provide a front-facing, high-definition video.

“I’m very happy about that,” said Johnson.

From the eight Flock cameras, Pepper estimated CPOC has seen roughly two months’ worth of footage. Only four to five actual police stops were conducted related to incidents captured in that period. No complaints have been made to the department regarding Flock, according to Johnson.

The total number of Flock stops will be made public when the department releases the village’s most recent crime statistics, but Johnson projected the number to be between 12 and 20.

Flock and dashcam footage were not included in the semi-annual report due to how recently CPOC gained the authority to see it. Pepper told the board the footage would be included in subsequent reports, which was confirmed by Kira Tchang, the village’s human resources director.

Receiving and reviewing police footage is a notable step forward in increasing CPOC’s oversight authorities – something desired by both commissioners and village board members alike. Expanding the commission’s influence was also recommended by BerryDunn, a representative from which called CPOC “minimally effective.” CPOC, however, found BerryDunn had underutilized the commission during the assessment.

“We felt our input into that process was very limited and we would have liked to have had additional time to communicate and dialogue with the consultant before the report was actually issued,” said Pepper.

CPOC included an addendum in its report to request that the village board continue to involve the committee in conversations about community policing, particularly in regard to recommendations made by BerryDunn. The consulting firm’s engagement of CPOC left the commissioners wanting.

Village Manager Kevin Jackson confirmed he is in discussions with village staff and the police chief about revising CPOC’s charter, which dictates the scope of the committee’s authority and responsibilities, to give the committee even greater oversight authority. Jackson did not have “anything beyond that to report” that night. Wednesday Journal has reached out to him for comment.

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