Police body camera 1.20.22

The Madison City Council pushed a decision on implementing a pilot program for body-worn cameras Tuesday to their April 19 meeting.

Madison’s City Council Tuesday night pushed a decision on implementing a pilot program for body-worn cameras in the Madison Police Department to its April 19 meeting after hearing an hour of mixed public comment on the resolution.

Body-worn cameras have proven to be a controversial topic in Madison; the city has grappled with the idea for the police department for years.

A six-member feasibility review committee formed in April 2020 and recommended Madison start with a “rigorous pilot project” before expanding to all districts. In January 2021, the feasibility committee formally recommended using the pilot program before implementing body-worn cameras citywide.

Then, in March, 2021, Madison’s Public Safety Review Committee recommended the City Council not pursue using the technology either in a pilot program nor a full deployment. At the time the committee said, “technology will not put us on a path to social justice, equity and safety, especially if it’s robbing us of much needed funds to address our neighbors’ basic needs.”

The feasibility review committee highlighted the complexities surrounding policies that govern body-worn cameras and acknowledged that the cameras are not a “panacea” and cannot be expected to improve policing or the relationship between the community and police alone. 

Since then, the program has been in limbo and is now in the hands of the City Council to decide whether or not to enact it.

The proposed resolution discussed Tuesday would implement a one-year long body-worn camera pilot program in the police department. The 2021 capital budget included $83,000 for approximately 48 body-worn cameras, and the program would require another $55,000 to cover video processing that MPD will absorb in their 2022 budget. 

Some who spoke at public comment Tuesday expressed concerns about police overreach and community surveillance if the body-worn camera program were to be implemented. 

Voces de la Frontera sounded the alarm Monday ahead of the vote, calling the pilot program “mass surveillance” and a way to divert money away from social needs.

The organization — led by low-wage workers, immigrants and youth whose “mission is to protect and expand civil rights and workers’ rights,” according to their website — said deferring the vote to April is a way to “catch (the public) off-guard around the important local elections due to the great opposition of this program.” 

Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes told the Cap Times that the delay of the decision was not a setback. He said, “it's part of the process,” and perhaps a needed postponement given all of the questions from community members.

Barnes said some of the concerns raised at Tuesday’s meeting were “very valid and relevant,” and others were misguided. The three-month delay gives him an opportunity to address those questions during the public hearing and educate the public, as well as let the city comply with an ordinance adopted in 2020 covering the use and purchase of surveillance equipment. 

That now includes MPD holding a public hearing on the technology to address concerns, questions and education, Barnes said. 

“There are some steps in that ordinance that, quite frankly, we didn't have time to fulfill, including in a public hearing,” Barnes said. “I want to make sure that I'm following the rules and guidelines established to give people a voice.”

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the council’s move to postpone a decision was “very disappointing but not an entirely unexpected outcome.”

“For whatever reason, this Common Council has just punted on the issue of body-worn cameras, and I think they've done so to the detriment of the public,” he said. “It just seems like some leaders in Madison are intent on finding one reason or another to stand in the way.”

Palmer echoed Madison’s Public Safety Review Committee comments from last March that body worn cameras are not a panacea or that the cameras by themselves will somehow strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities they serve. 

But he said the cameras are a critically important tool for police accountability.

WPPA’s annual statewide survey found that approximately 85% of Wisconsinites strongly support body-worn cameras. Sixty percent of minority respondents in the 2021 poll said the technology was “an immediate priority,” compared to about 44% for white survey responders. 

“Madison continues to fall further and further behind the curve of where law enforcement both in Wisconsin and nationally is going,” Palmer said.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s office declined an interview request about the pilot program and its next steps.

Some questions and concerns will only be remedied in practice, Barnes said, which is why the pilot program was the right choice for the police department instead of city-wide implementation.

But Palmer contended that, because it’s a pilot program, there should be no reason for the council to drag their feet on a decision.

“It's a pilot program so that we can test the (cameras) and see how they work and see how they're received by the public. The whole pilot program is designed to test whether or not they're suitable for policing in this community,” Palmer said. “I just don't understand what some leaders are afraid of by simply testing (the program).”

Palmer and WPPA have been working with police departments across the state to educate them on the benefits of body-worn cameras and to reinforce the notion as to why accountability is good. 

“Cameras are a pretty regular feature of the news, and I think they help answer a lot of questions that the public has every right to have regarding police conduct,” Palmer said. “I think the Common Council’s obstruction of proceeding with a pilot program is just inexplicable.”

Barnes said to expect a public hearing on body-worn cameras in the first week of March.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.