Editorial: Body cameras aren’t enough to solve Evanston police issues, racial bias

As incident after incident has shown, the issues of racial bias and excessive force that pervade police departments across the country also affect Evanston police — most recently illustrated in the detainment of 60-year-old black Evanston man Gregory Hall. Hall was injured after Evanston police misidentified him as an armed robbery suspect as he was leaving the Evanston Public Library south branch.

As many Evanston community members continue to describe their distrust of local police, the Evanston Police Department has tried to ease these tensions.  The Citizen Police Complaint Assessment Committee met for the first time in October to discuss reforming EPD’s complaint process and has been working on the matter since.  And most recently, this has taken form in the utilization of body cameras.

Last month, EPD began requiring all field officers to wear body cameras while on duty as an apparent move to strengthen police-community relations and increase police transparency and safety. And Evanston isn’t alone: Following widespread concerns about policing, in 2015, a nationwide survey showed 95 percent of large police departments had implemented body cameras or were planning to do so. While certainly a step in bolstering police and department accountability, however, it’s unclear how body cameras will impact Evanston policing and whether excessive force and racial discrimination in practice will decrease.

Studies conducted by other police departments do show some evidence concerning the effectiveness of body cameras. A comprehensive seven-month study was released in 2017 within Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department — in which about half of more than  2,200 officers were randomly selected to receive body cameras while the rest were not. The study found that the implementation of body cameras resulted in no statistically significant difference in citizen complaints or the use of force within the city, among other measured outcomes. It is worth mentioning that an earlier year-long study in Rialto, California did show large decreases in both areas. Ultimately, though, we must go beyond simply contesting the material benefits of body cameras, which remain largely ambiguous. Rather, it’s become clear that body cameras can’t be viewed as wholescale, comprehensive solutions when the problem is largely rooted in the need for fundamental behavioral changes in policing.

In the past, EPD has taken a few steps to address deeper issues, through initiatives including the development of an updated, longer-term curriculum for its diversity and inclusion program, continued training on different de-escalation techniques and suggested reforms to the citizen complaint process. Unlike many U.S. police departments, EPD is also more representative of the community’s racial demographics: Black officers comprise around a quarter of the police force, while 18.1 percent of Evanston’s population is black. But as institutional concerns persist, it’s apparent Evanston police can’t fall back on these factors and assume they prevent discriminatory behavior from occurring. Rather, EPD still needs more comprehensive change which addresses issues in their broader context.

National policing statistics reveal racial bias can affect even the most seemingly progressive cities and communities — black and Latinx people are regularly impacted disproportionately by police stops and searches, among numerous other disparities. Next door to Evanston, Chicago police were found to engage in a “pattern or practice of unlawful conduct” and that the Chicago Police Department has “tolerated racially discriminatory conduct” behavior in a 164-page report by the U.S. Department of Justice last year.

Even here, a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — which examined traffic stops from 132 police agencies through 16 states — found that in 2014, Evanston police were seven times more likely to search a black driver than a white one, and that EPD had the highest black to white search ratio of any department.

Although a tool in improving police relations, body cameras don’t directly address systemic causes of these discrepancies. Last year, a video was released showing Evanston police’s 2015 arrest of Northwestern graduate student Lawrence Crosby after someone mistook him for breaking into a car he owned. The video shows officers striking Crosby’s knees and upper thighs, and one officer can be heard saying, “I didn’t shoot you. … You should feel lucky for that.”

Police dashboard camera recordings of Crosby’s arrest were made public after a third-party Freedom of Information Act request. Body camera footage will similarly be available to residents only through FOIA requests, which require approval from the department, as well as consent from the person involved, Sgt. Jay Parrott told The Daily in January. Still, as Crosby’s arrest illustrates, accessible police footage doesn’t always prevent incidents from occurring in the first place.

While Evanston police’s rollout of body cameras will surely benefit community-police relations by holding officers and the department accountable, it can’t be viewed as anything more than that. EPD must also consistently work to address implicit biases in policing, excessive use of force and concerns about racial profiling, among other institutional issues.  

This piece represents the majority opinion of the Editorial Board of The Daily Northwestern. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members or Editorial Board members of The Daily Northwestern.