CHICAGO — Eight minutes after a police officer fatally shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Little Village, officers responding to the scene were told to turn off their body cameras.
That’s according to police dispatch audio published on Instagram this weekend by Pilsen photojournalist Mateo Zapata. The audio, which Zapata edited for brevity, alarmed community members who have been following the case, but police say it’s standard procedure for officers to turn off cameras once a crime scene is “secured.”
Toledo was shot March 29 in the 2300 block of South Sawyer Avenue following an “armed confrontation” with police, authorities said. Prosecutors said Toledo was with Ruben Roman, 21, who had been firing a handgun nearby when officers responded to a ShotSpotter alert of shots fired.
Two uniformed Chicago Police officers responded to the scene, spotted Roman and Toledo and began chasing after them, prosecutors said.
After Roman was detained, the second officer chased Toledo down an alley. He repeatedly told Toledo to stop but Toledo continued running. The teen stopped near a fence and the officer told him to show his hands, prosecutors said.
Toledo was holding a gun in his right hand, at his right side, and standing with his left side facing the officer, prosecutors alleged.
“The officer tells [Toledo] to drop it — ‘drop it, drop it’ — as [Toledo] turns toward the officer. [Toledo] has a gun in his right hand. The officer fires one shot at [Toledo], striking him in the chest,” Cook County Prosecutor James Murphy said during Roman’s Saturday hearing. Body camera footage of the incident is expected to be released this week after Toledo’s family is able to view it.
In the audio, which Zapata said was recorded approximately 8 minutes after Toledo was shot, officers are told that the scene is secured and that they can turn off their cameras.
“Scene secured, everyone shut off your camera,” one person says over the radio.
“Just a reminder to any units on the scene here at 24th and Sawyer, please turn off your body cams,” another voice says. According to the audio from Zapata, officers were told at least four times to shut off their body cameras.
Block Club Chicago independently verified that officers were first told to turn off their body cameras approximately 8 minutes after Toledo was shot. However, the additional reminders came later, and were not all within the 29 seconds of the audio that he posted to Instagram.
A Chicago Police sergeant, who asked to remain anonymous, said shutting off the cameras once a scene is secured is consistent with department policy.
“Once the scene is secured, that’s when we can turn off our body cams. After the incident is completed and secured, that’s like a general order of ours,” the sergeant said.
Secured means that “it’s no longer an active scene and the police have cordoned it off for their investigation,” the sergeant said.
After Block Club published this story, CPD spokesman Don Terry confirmed officers at the scene followed department directives in shutting off their cameras after several minutes.
“They didn’t do anything wrong. An incident happens, after the incident is under control, turn off your body cameras while the investigation is underway,” Terry said.
Zapata, who obtained the audio from an unnamed source, said allowing police officers to shut off cameras just minutes after a fatal shooting by police seems like a bad policy.
“Whether it’s police procedure or not, it’s something that I don’t agree with,” he said. “I think if we are going to have police officers wear body cams, then we need to have the entire situation documented. Before, during the incident, and afterwards. I think it’s a level of transparency and accountability that the residents of Chicago are entitled to.”
The reason behind shutting off the cameras involves the cost of storing the footage, the sergeant said.
“It would be astronomical to store 9 hours or 24 hours a day for the whole police department. They are already spending millions of dollars,” the sergeant said.
According to a Chicago Police Department directive issued in 2018, officers must “activate his body-worn camera at the beginning of an incident and will record the entire incident for all law-enforcement-related activities.”
As for turning them off, the directive says they will not be deactivated unless “the entire incident has been recorded and the member is no longer engaged in a law-enforcement-related activity… or “the highest-ranking on-scene Bureau of Patrol supervisor has determined that the scene is secured in circumstances involving an officer-involved death investigation, firearm discharge, or any other use of force incident.”
Asked if turning off body-cams after an incident is routine, the sergeant said, “it’s become common because there was a learning curve. They thought they had to keep them on the whole time, but no, it’s only during the incident. Once it’s over and secured, that’s when it could be turned off [per] our rules and regulations.”
The sergeant said to activate the camera, there’s a round button near the center of the body camera that must be pushed twice.
“It starts recording at that point but it saves the previous thirty seconds, so technically they are always on but they are not always recording to where you’d be able to look back further than 30 seconds [before activating].
“The minute you start responding to a call, you’re supposed to activate it. Then you can turn it off once the scene is secured,” the sergeant said.
An independent policing expert, who did not want to go on the record due to the sensitive nature of the Toledo shooting, said she hadn’t heard the audio but confirmed that storage costs are something that police departments around the country are having issues with.
Zapata scoffed at cost as a reason to not have body-cams always on.
“We’re within the midst of a pandemic where the Mayor gave the Chicago Police Department over half of our federal relief funds amounting to $280 million and they are saying that it’s too expensive to log and review the footage. It’s a cycle of inconsistency on behalf of the Chicago Police Department,” Zapata said.
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