Yesterday, the Madison Finance Committee recommended allocating more than $80,000 in next year’s capital budget to go toward a body camera pilot program.
The program was suggested as an amendment by Alder Barbara Harrington-McKinney, who says she wanted to be proactive, in advance of a city committee currently studying the issue.
“I wanted to be proactive,” said Harrington-McKinney. “I wanted the considerations that I’m going to be moving forward to be a part of the conversation. If I waited until the recommendations come, it’s an uphill climb.”
Meanwhile, Madison’s Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee has been considering whether or not to recommend the implementation of body-worn cameras since July. This committee is expected to reach a decision sometime this year.
And it’s not the first committee in recent history to look at the issue.
The discussion on whether or not to implement body cameras in Madison has been ongoing since 2015, when Madison police officer Matthew Kenny shot 19-year-old Madison resident Tony Robinson. That prompted the creation of a civilian-led committee to review Madison Police policies and procedures, which released its full report of recommendations in 2019.
That project included a review from the OIR Group, an organization that focuses on police reform. Michael Gennaco, the executive director of the OIR Group, says that they recommended the use of body cameras provided the local government regulated them properly.
“There needs to be some discussion in consideration about guiding officers when they are to activate the body camera, how long the body cameras are going to be stored, what the disclosure is going to be for people requesting body camera footage, whether or not-when there is an investigation of the officer-whether the officer would be allowed to review the body camera before submitting to an interview, so there are a number of issues that should be addressed before any implementation,” said Gennaco.
Earlier this year, the Wisconsin state legislature passed legislation requiring written procedures for police departments that do use body cameras. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, 13 of Dane County’s 24 police agencies use body cameras, including the cities of Sun Prairie, Middleton, and Fitchburg.
Yet in Madison, some former advocates of the idea have soured on body cameras. Gregory Gelembiuk, is a member of the Body Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee. He filed a petition in 2015 calling for body cameras on police officers, but now describes himself as a skeptic.
“So the hope was that it would lead to improvements in police behavior, and the research literature at this point does not really bear that out,” said Gelembiuk. “Under real-world conditions, it effectively appears that it does not result in any reduction in use of force. There typically is a reduction in complaints. It appears that’s not necessarily due to changes in police behavior.”
Veronica Figueroa, is the executive director of Latino advocacy group UNIDOS and co-chaired the first body camera committee, Figueroa says that she is directly opposed to body cameras because she believes they are not effective.
“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.
Figueroa says that she has spoken to many members of the Madison community who are concerned about how body cameras would be used. She would like to see the money used for body cams to be invested in the community, instead.
Luke Schieve, who sits on the committee with her, says that he has also heard from community members who are worried about the impact of body cameras, and how the police would use them.
“One of the fears is that, while this might be a good tool for the police to be able to identify bad actors and prove their own evidence, there could be potential for situations where the body cameras demonstrate or provide evidence that is not as favorable to those who are wearing them, and we want to make sure that, in those cases, the purpose of the body cameras doesn’t get buried within a given process or bias or anything like that,” said Schieve.
But Greg Markle, the executive director of Madison-based advocacy group Operation Fresh Start, says that they performed a study of the community impact of body cameras. He says that their presence makes people more comfortable.
“The thing which our young people presented as that their comfort level and their willingness to interact with police and call police if they are in need of help, it appears that their willingness to call police if they need help would go up if police wore body cameras, because they’d feel safer and more confident in making that call,” said Markle.
The Body Worn Feasibility Review Committee is expected to come to a recommendation on whether the Madison Police Department should implement body-worn cameras in the next few months. Its next meeting is this Thursday at 6pm.
Reporting for WORT News, I’m Martin Rakacolli.