On Tuesday, Madison’s City Council again considered whether Madison police officers should wear body cameras, the latest in a five-year plus debate over the policy involving several committees.
The council deliberated for over two hours on what to do with a recent report examining the feasibility of body cams. That report, released in January, recommended a pilot program for police use of body cameras, as long as other reforms are also implemented.
Ultimately, the council decided to accept the report from the body-worn camera feasibility committee. But any steps towards implementing body cams would require additional action by the council.
Body cameras – and a committee charged with reviewing their feasibility – were included as one of 177 recommended changes in a 2019 review of MPD policies and procedures.
At least two of those recommended changes – an independent monitor and a civilian oversight board – are already being implemented. Job applications are being accepted for the independent monitor, and members have been appointed to the civilian oversight board – which is also now facing a federal civil rights lawsuit.
Keith Findley is a law professor at UW-Madison, and serves frequently on city policing committees. He’s a member of the new oversight board – and says body cam footage would be an important tool for that board:
“We ought to have a little confidence in our ability, in the institutions that we have just created, to use the footage in the right way. Without it, there is no question that the board will be handicapped in its ability to do oversight work,” says Findley.
Supporters of body worn cameras say they could increase accountability and transparency, improve community trust in policing, and decrease the use of force.
Yet the report cites conflicting research on these impacts, acknowledging that there isn’t yet convincing evidence that body cams achieve these goals.
And for every potential selling point listed in the committee’s 57-page report, there is also a potential downside. Those concerns include invasion of privacy and errors in facial recognition software. They could lead to more criminalization of minor crimes. And they could be abused by federal immigration authorities.
Critics say the technology distracts from other reform measures.
Veronica Figueroa is the executive director of the Latino advocacy group UNIDOS, and a co-chair on the body cam committee that wrote the report. Last September, she told WORT reporter Martin Rakacolli that the benefits of body cams might not be worth the costs.
“We have tons of footage and no accountability for police, and I didn’t see the use of investing more money into more equipment with no accountability already happening in our country; across the country,” said Figueroa.
Even though the city approved $83,000 for body cams in this year’s budget, implementing the pilot program alone would require an additional $53,000. As for a complete body cam program in Madison, the report made a rough estimate of $376,000 every year.
The decision to accept the report on Tuesday does not give a definitive answer on whether Madison police will use body cameras in the near future. The report itself makes a cautious recommendation to experiment with body cams, and decide whether they are worth the costs based on the results. If the City Council wants to move forward with that recommendation, it would need to agree on the details of the pilot program and approve the additional funding.
Reporting for WORT news, I’m Seeger Gray.
PHOTO: Brian Standing / WORT News