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Publicizing Use-Of-Force Videos Included In Chicago-Area Sherriff's Reforms


The Cook County, Ill., department of corrections has one of the largest single-site jails in the country, 9,000 detainees who are housed - if that's quite the word - in an area that's about eight city blocks. The prison is run by the sheriff of Cook County, Tom Dart.

Among the series of reforms he's recently implemented is an increase in video cameras, including body cameras on supervisors, in the hope of reducing the number of cases in which guards have abused inmates. And sometimes, those videos are released to the public. Sheriff Tom Dart joins us now from Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOM DART: Oh, thanks for having me on, Scott.

SIMON: What made you decide to do this?

DART: You know, Scott, we'd been trying to sort of open up the view of this place to the public pretty much from day one. But we had to get through some of these hurdles so that, in the event of bad things going on in jail, we're not going to hide from it. We're going to be transparent. And we'll attempt to work through firing, criminally charging, if - as necessary as well - but to let the public know that we're trying. We're not involved with some cover-up, or this isn't some big secret.

SIMON: Bad things going on - I mean, to be plain about it, you mean mostly guards abusing inmates?

DART: Yeah, in cases of excessive force. So where it's clear that a correctional officer has exceeded what the norms require because clearly - obviously, in every jail and prison, correctional officers and guards will have to put their hands on a detainee sometimes to get them to respond. And more often than not, that's appropriate. But in the cases where they've gone beyond that and it's excessive, there needs to be immediately reaction from us.

SIMON: Can you tell us about a couple?

DART: Some of the activity was, for all intents and purposes in my view, were - was harmless. It was a detainee just talking back or something like that. And then the correctional officer in a case struck him then.

There's another case on the other end of the spectrum where a detainee was waiting for the correctional officers to come through his door for lock-up. And when they got near the door, he pushed the door open, slamming the door into the correction officers, knocking them down. And then he started running. They tackled him. All that was fine, but then one of the officers took it to the next step and was just kneeing him and punching him in the face even though he was down already.

It really runs the spectrum. But they were all cases that we felt pretty strongly were not representative of how you should be conducting yourself.

SIMON: Not to make any excuses for any kind of misconduct, but I'm sure you've spoken with corrections officers and maybe police officers who have said, over the years, that if somebody strikes a prison official, they feel the need for the retribution to be instantaneous and not to go through a legal system. They need to demonstrate that those officers aren't there to be trifled with.

DART: Yeah. And, you know, Scott, frankly, it's that mindset that has gotten everyone into so much trouble because there are systems that are set up to deal with a detainee who is not complying with the rules that you need to run a correctional facility. And striking them is not one of them. And what it does is it breeds an environment, then, where violence is the norm. And there is not the distinction between the professionals and the people who are being incarcerated because of some act that they did on the street. And you have to have it so that the public has faith that there isn't one set of rules for the people on the street and there's another set of rules for law enforcement. You have to have one set of rules.

SIMON: Any concern that any correctional officer that you might want to discipline or could even result in a legal case will have his or her rights potentially violated by releasing the video?

DART: We wait until there's been a thorough investigation that has sustained the facts that there has been excessive force. And then it goes to a hearing. So there's a myriad of eyes that are looking at this to make sure that it is, in fact, done appropriately. And we feel very confident that, at the end of the day, with the videos that are released, they're the ones that has gone through all of the screening ahead of time to make sure that everyone's rights are being looked after.

SIMON: Sheriff Dart, do you hope all the video surveillance might deter abusive behavior from corrections officers or, for that matter, outrageous things done by inmates?

DART: Probably one of the top reasons we did this was not just to catch things on the back end after bad things happen, but for the majority of cases where, frankly, it's detainee on detainee, that it would be easier to find out who did what to who and when. Cases where detainees are setting fires or are otherwise trying to break different things within the correctional facility, we'd be able to catch that proactively. And then for the rare cases where we have excessive force, that everybody would know we have cameras everywhere.

So underlying so much of what we did was the notion that there was going to be this deterrent effect throughout the place both for detainees, employees and everyone else involved.

SIMON: The sheriff of Cook County, Tom Dart - thanks so much.

DART: Scott, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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