Madison District 16 Ald. Michael Tierney did a police ride-along early one Sunday morning when only 28 Madison police officers were on patrol. He said this small number of officers means it is inevitable that some police will have to take action without backup, which can lead to many unclear situations — situations where police body cameras could improve understanding. However, body cameras are not a simple issue, Tierney said.
The controversy surrounding police body cameras can be seen throughout Madison’s City Council. This past fall Ald. Paul Skidmore proposed an amendment to former Mayor Paul Soglin’s 2019 operating budget which included funding of $104,000 for approximately 47 body-worn cameras, related equipment and training. But funding for the project was removed by Common Council Capital Budget amendment #6.
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While some City Council members believe cameras would improve police relations by increasing transparency, others are concerned about privacy protection with the cameras.
Tierney said he is open to the body cameras but he has yet to see a proposal that “has his vote,” because he is concerned the cameras could put bystanders and victims at risk.
“There needs to be some modification made or some amendment made so that if we have body camera footage that would include minors, witnesses, that sort of thing, if we can have a policy in place that can safeguard privacy, that’s important for me,” Tierney said.
Under current state open record law, Tierney is not sure what level of privacy can be ensured. He said before he would vote in favor of a proposal he would need to discuss these privacy concerns with the city attorney staff and outside groups that are dedicated to the preservation of public information.
Tierney said that, while he does not think Madison is ready for cameras yet, he does think they have the potential to verify police reports. Newly-elected District 2 Ald. Patrick Heck said this verification is not always reliable.
“They can be problematic and they’re by no means a panacea to solving issues related to any kind of unwarranted violence by public safety officers,” Heck said. “They don’t really necessarily show the absolute truth.”
Body cameras are not as effective as many have hoped they would be. A recent study on body cameras in Milwaukee found that, while officers with cameras made fewer stops and were less likely to receive citizen complaints, cameras had no impact on their use of force.
There is room for improvement with regard to trust between Madison police and citizens, according to Heck, who added that increasing community input on police policies and procedures could help this relationship.
The Madison Police Department has a long history of racial disparities. A 2013 report, Race to Equity, found that in 2010, black youth in Dane County were six times more likely to be arrested than white youths while nationally, black youths were a little more than twice as likely to be arrested than their white peers. This report also found that in 2012, black adults were eight times as likely to be arrested as white adults in Dane County while nationally they were two and a half times as likely.
Madison police are implementing several new programs to establish trust. One such program, the Madison Police Department Youth Academies, offers summer activities so youth stay out of trouble over break. Tierney said these programs are important because they prevent youth from getting into trouble in the first place.
Body cameras should be used along with these other trust-building programs and, while they may not a detriment to these programs, they are also not a complete solution, Tierney said.
“You can’t just say we’re just going to have body cameras and not do anything else, I think that we have to have an overall, holistic conversation about policing,” Tierney said. “I can support body cameras but I also want to see things in place that enable our police department to have the resources to engage in trust-building activities.”
This allocation of resources is a big part of the conversation surrounding body cameras. Storing the data from cameras is costly, Tierney said. This money might be better spent on a police officer with mental health training, according to Heck, or in more youth programming, Tierney explained.
Tierney said Madison should do a cost-benefit analysis to see if the savings from avoided lawsuits from reports of officers not following procedure would outweigh the cost of the cameras.
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Public support for body cameras is already high. According to a recent poll conducted by the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, 94 percent of respondents said they favored the use of body cameras. Heck said these results might not truly represent all the details of the issue.
“I think that people probably are not familiar with some of the research that shows that body cams are fallible,” Heck said. “I think that a poll, which doesn’t typically include a lot of subtle aspects of a problem, can give results such as that.”
Tierney said that a lot more research needs to be done before a decision is made regarding body cameras. Improving relations between the police and the Madison community is a complicated issue that will require an “overall approach,” he said.
For now, police body cameras are off the table. But they have been proposed and rejected in the past according to the Madison Police Department Policy and Procedure Review.
With regard to future decisions on body cameras, it is important to include the voice of the Madison community, Heck said.
“For complicated issues like this it takes a community engagement and community conversations to get people aware of why complicated issues like this are worth discussing in greater detail,” Heck said.