In an effort to learn from national scandals surrounding the use of force by police, Chicago officials have announced reforms aimed at improving police accountability and transparency.
A pilot police-body-camera program is slated to start in Chicago by early 2015. Initially, program participants will be officers who have volunteered to wear the body cameras. But presumably, cameras would eventually spread through police ranks.
Chicago aldermen also acted this week to officially ban the use of chokeholds by city law enforcement. Alderman Edward Burke, himself a former police officer, introduced the ordinance, which describes the procedure as “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air.”
Both issues have become increasingly popular policy proposals after the death of Eric Garner, a New York resident who died after being placed in a chokehold by police after allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. His death was ruled a homicide by New York City medical examiners.
But will the reforms make any difference? Many have pointed out that New York police have beenexplicitly forbidden from using chokeholds since 1993, yet the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board has received thousands of complaints about chokeholds. And even when they were proven to have occurred, the most severe punishment any officer received was “a loss of vacation days.” And in the case of Eric Garner, video evidence didn’t lead to an indictment of officer Daniel Pantaleo.
But there’s no reason to oppose greater transparency or training for proper police conduct. It’s true that cameras and a law against chokeholds will not fix Chicago overnight. The city has entrenched problems with police conduct. Taxpayers spend hundreds of millions on police misconduct settlements; and Illinois, thanks to Cook County, leads the nation in wrongful convictions.
The city lacks objective records of events during police disputes, and evidence suggests body cameras would make a real difference. One study conducted in Rialto, California, showed a 60 percent reduction in the use of force and an 88 percent reduction in complaints against the police in a single year after officers started wearing body cameras.
City officials don’t get very much right. But if public pressure makes them act to ensure greater police transparency and more protection of individual rights, we may have good reason to be optimistic.