Thursday night I took a group of journalism students to a community policing beat meeting in the hopes they’d catch a glimpse of how the Chicago Police Department works.

They did.

The police department began implementing its community policing programs, known as CAPS, in 1993 and ’94, and officially it still touts the cops-and-residents-working-together approach as an effective way to keep city streets safer. “The City of Chicago has a new weapon in the fight against crime–and that new weapon is you, the community,” declares the community policing page on the department’s Web site. “By opening up the dialogue between police and community, CAPS is producing a number of important success stories at the neighborhood level.”

The officers in each of the city’s police beats hold a meeting every month with a neighborhood volunteer known as a “beat facilitator” and anyone else who decides to come by. (Meeting dates, times, and places are posted on the department’s Web site.) Generally the sessions consist of a police update on recent crime statistics from the area, complaints or questions about criminal activity or police inaction from residents, and pledges from the cops that they’re all over it.

At Thursday’s meeting, though, the police officer who was supposed to give the monthly crime statistics report didn’t show up, so less than five minutes after the facilitator had called everyone to order, she opened the floor to questions. 

A resident of a nearby condo building asked how police are dispatched once a 911 call is placed. A plainclothes officer who identified himself as the district commander’s community liaison began to answer the question, then looked at the students and stopped.

“By the way, you can’t record this without prior permission,” he said.

I’ve been attending CAPS meetings for years, and I’d never heard such a thing. Plus, I didn’t think it was legal. So I said so to the officer. “This is a public meeting,” I said.

“No, no, no, it’s our meeting,” he said. “It’s a public meeting hosted by the police department, so you need prior consent.”

“There are eavesdropping laws, too,” said another officer. 

The first officer told me I had to call the department’s news affairs bureau downtown and get approval. 

But when I called news affairs Friday morning, a different standard was explained to me. “It’s been the general policy at these meetings that you’re welcome to attend, but with any electronic media, you need to get the permission of the people at the meeting,”said Pat Camden, the deputy director of news affairs.

I asked if this policy was in writing, and Camden said he’d check and call me back. A little while later he did. “Talking to our legal people, it’s their interpretation that CAPS meetings do not fall under the Open Meetings Act,” he said.

The Open Meetings Act states that public agencies and officials cannot hold official meetings without opening them to citizens. “In order that the people shall be informed, the General Assembly finds and declares that it is the intent of this Act to ensure that the actions of public bodies be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly,” it says. It defines public bodies in broad terms as “all legislative, executive, administrative or advisory bodies of the State, counties, townships, cities, villages, incorporated towns, school districts and all other municipal corporations, boards, bureaus, committees or commissions of this State, and any subsidiary bodies.” And it expressly states that “any person may record the proceedings at meetings required to be open by this Act by tape, film or other means.”

Heather Kimmons, assistant public access counselor for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said CAPS meetings should not be exempt. “Under the Open Meetings Act, they would absolutely be open to recording,” she said. 

The law does allow some “responsible” restrictions that would interfere with conducting a meeting, such as noisy equipment or distracting lighting. “But a responsible rule would not include ‘No taping without prior consent,'” Kimmons said.

At the Thursday night meeting I simply told my students to shut off their recorders and take notes. They did, and for the next few minutes, they listened to police officers complain that members of the media sensationalize problems within the police department and far too often don’t bother to get the facts right.