The City of Madison’s Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee recently recommended the use of body-worn cameras by the Madison Police Department to the city council.
This decision comes after the committee held over 25 virtual meetings discussing perceived distrust in officers following controversial police encounters, among other law enforcement accountability-related topics, according to the City Clerk’s Office.
According to the committee’s final report, Madison looked into the use of BWCs in 2014, but concerns of misuse and efficacy ultimately led to no recommendations.
“I think that the main reason that it’s hard to make a recommendation is because the research findings are often hard to replicate,” committee member Luke Schieve said. “There’s solid evidence that, in some cases, where not implemented appropriately, BWCs may increase criminalization of marginalized groups, decrease trust in the police or violate privacy.”
University of Wisconsin Law School professor and committee co-chair Keith A. Findley described the history leading up to the ultimate formation of his committee in July 2020. Following the first study of BWCs, the Madison City Council created a committee to study MPD as well as its policies, procedures, practice, training and culture, Findley said.
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After nearly four years of studying MPD’s relationship to the community, the committee concluded its work, publishing a lengthy report including 177 specific recommendations for reform. The capstone recommendation was the creation of a mechanism for civilian oversight of the police.
In the fall of 2020, the city council commissioned the Office of the Independent Monitor and the Police Civilian Oversight Board, per the civilian oversight recommendation.
But the growing distrust in the police following cases of police discrimination against marginalized individuals pushed the city council to take another look at BWCs, Findley and Schieve said.
“When it came to BWCs, the committee said, ‘given all of these reforms that we are recommending, if the city were to implement them, that might change the way the city views BWCs,’ and so that committee recommended another in-depth study into BWCs to consider whether they should be adopted in the new environment the city was trying to create,” Findley said.
Schieve and Findley said there were initial concerns regarding how the body cameras would be used, including worries among community members that they may be misused without established policies and procedures.
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The committee believes through newly established measures to improve accountability and transparency, however, BWCs can be used to establish justice and trust, Findley said.
“We looked into these issues in really great depth, and we came up with some very specific and detailed preconditions for the adoption of body-worn cameras along with a very detailed, specific proposed policy to govern the use of the cameras,” Findley said.
Findley said one policy recommended includes forbidding officers from turning on and off their cameras. To ensure this policy, tools like automatic triggering of the recording devices whenever the squad car lights go on would be implemented.
Additionally, all bystander footage will also be accepted to cross-reference with the body cam footage. All of this footage will give the Police Civilian Oversight Board more utility to perform their functions, Schieve and Findley said.
Such a policy is just one step toward allowing BWCs to restrict officer discretion. Schieve said the recommendation contains months of work, however, and every point made cannot be covered in a brief.
“Summarizing it will hardly do it justice, especially since we spent such a long time carefully crafting the report and model policy to ameliorate negative effects like criminalization, so I would kindly ask that those who read this take the time to review the report for themselves,” Schieve said.
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Schieve and Findley said they cannot speak to the timing of the pilot plan’s introduction to the MPD, as the program is financed by the city and the city will ultimately be responsible for allocating funds. Schieve and Findley said BWCs are expensive equipment and the COVID-19 pandemic is a pressing issue commanding city resources.
“We included many details of the costs in the report, which should help the city factor that into their decision making, but [we] did not attempt to prioritize BWCs against other items within the city’s budget, as that was out of our scope,” Schieve said. “It’s my opinion that COVID-19 vaccination efforts should be prioritized over BWCs. However, prioritization was out of scope for our committee.”