Steve Chapman

One night last summer Raymond Bell was pulled over by a Chicago cop and arrested for driving under the influence. Officer Joe D. Parker, a 23-year veteran, reported that upon getting out of his car, Bell was stinking of alcohol, lurching and unable to walk a straight line or stand on one foot.

An officer with his stellar record would normally prevail against a DUI suspect. But in this case, Bell had something on his side: a video camera mounted on the dashboard of Parker's squad car that told a radically different story.

Far from revealing a staggering drunk, reported the Chicago Sun-Times, the video "showed Bell appearing to be perfectly balanced," passing the sobriety tests that Parker administered -- and being refused when he asked to take a Breathalyzer. Prosecutors watched the video and promptly dismissed the case. They are now considering charges against Parker.

That episode raises the question: Nine years into the 21st century, why isn't every squad car in America equipped with a dashboard video camera? Why do we persist in relying on the slippery, self-interested, incomplete and unverified accounts of opposing participants when we have the means to see the truth with our own eyes?

In this instance, the innocent man was lucky to be stopped by a cop driving a video-armed vehicle. The odds are against it, since only 11 percent of the CPD's cars have cameras for recording traffic stops. Though the department is planning to use federal stimulus money to double that number and the mayor has said he wants cameras installed in the remaining vehicles "as quickly as possible," no one is radiating a sense of haste.

Why not? The department says the main obstacle is money. Equipping another 300 cars, as the city plans, will require $2.1 million. So making them standard on the rest would cost about $13 million.

But that shouldn't be an insurmountable obstacle. The Illinois State Police, with a fleet of nearly 1,100 vehicles, have managed to install cameras in more than 900.

Spending $13 million looks extravagant only until you compare it to the cost of losing lawsuits over police misconduct. From 2005 through the middle of 2008, says the Chicago Reader, the city paid out $155 million in police cases. Dashboard cameras don't have to prevent many million-dollar judgments to be a bargain.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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