The 6 a.m. roll call on Nov. 1 for officers on the Brookfield Police Department’s day shift was not just the start of another day on patrol. For the first time, officers would be wearing body cameras on their uniforms while interacting with the public.
Since that time every Brookfield police officer is required to wear a body camera when they’re responding to calls for service or are out in the community in their official capacity.
“It’s one of the biggest technological changes we’ve seen in 30 years,” said Brookfield Police Chief Michael Kuruvilla, who was an early advocate for adopting the technology, even prior to the Illinois General Assembly mandating their use by 2025. “This is huge for us,” he said.
At the start of every shift, officers grab one of the recharged cameras from the docking station and have the device’s QR code scanned by the shift supervisor. The camera is mounted on the front of the officer’s uniform – it may take a little practice to make sure the lens is angled correctly – and must be switched on during any interaction with the public.
That can be done manually by the officer, but it can also be triggered automatically, said Kuruvilla, in certain circumstances. For example, the body cameras automatically go on any time a police officer activates the emergency lights of a squad car and an officer’s body camera automatically activates any time he or she is in proximity to another officer whose body cam is on.
“Because it’s so new we’re still working on what triggers work for us and what don’t,” Kuruvilla said. “Once you’re doing it, you realize how much more complicated things really are.”
Right now, because the body cameras and in-car dashboard cameras are separate systems, when responding to a call police must carry a second microphone connected to the in-car camera in addition to the one on the body camera.
That situation is expected to change in 2022 with the purchase of new in-car cameras made by Axon, the same manufacturer as the body cameras, but that will take some months to happen.
Members of the public who interact with police are also more likely than not – depending on the situation- — to be notified they’re being recorded by the body camera. While that might not be the case during a critical emergency, said Kuruvilla, “99 percent of the time we’ll be relaying that message.”
There are also policies regarding where cameras should not be taken – into bathrooms and locker rooms inside the police station, for example. The department has already placed bins outside bathroom and locker room doors, where officers can deposit the cameras before entering.
The Brookfield Village Board approved the purchase of the body cameras in early 2021 and the department took possession of the equipment in the summer, but it took some months to finalize the use policy and also address some hesitancy from rank-and-file officers who would be using the cameras every day.
“It’s something different and everybody has to get acclimated to a new piece of equipment,” said Richard Bruno, the Brookfield police union’s representative from the Illinois Council of Police.
Bruno said the union did demand to bargain the effects of the change in working conditions and the village agreed.
“Hopefully everybody was happy,” Bruno said. “There were some changes made at the union’s request, so there was give and take on both sides.”
The language changes to the body camera use policy, said Bruno, were done to make sure it adhered strictly to the police reform statute passed by the Illinois General Assembly.
“We wanted the policy to follow no less and no more than required by the act,” Bruno said. “I think they were good changes for everyone involved.”
Kuruvilla said patrol officers were also nervous about language in an earlier version of the police reform bill that called for any officer who did not turn on a body camera, especially in cases of use of deadly force, to be charged with a felony.
A later revision clarified the language to state such charges would result only in cases in which an officer acted intentionally or willfully to turn the camera off. Still, Kuruvilla said he wanted to be sure officers felt their voices were being heard before the cameras went live.
“My intention from the beginning was to try to be as meticulous, methodical and thorough as possible,” Kuruvilla said. “From August to November, I spent time meeting with individual officers and shifts to explain as best as I could, and to reassure them that all of this is for their protection and the community’s.”
The department also underwent a fairly comprehensive organizational overhaul this summer, with the retirement of former Chief Edward Petrak, the elevation of Kuruvilla into the top spot and the resulting promotions to fill ranks caused by those moves.
“Putting this added burden onto the officers at the same time didn’t seem to be a prudent move,” Kuruvilla said.
As of late last week, the department had not been asked to provide body camera video for any court case and none had been requested by citizens although that is seen as inevitable. The video is uploaded after each shift into Axon’s cloud-based storage system.
The Cook County State’s Attorney also used that system so providing video evidence in court case discovery can be as easy as dragging and dropping files. As for responding to Freedom of Information requests, it’s unclear exactly what kind of burden that will place on whoever is assigned to redact video.
“I have no reservations about doing so, but it is a manpower issue,” said Kuruvilla. “It’ll largely be a function of the command staff and records division.”