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Madison’s Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Committee released their final report this week, recommending to the Madison Common Council a body-camera pilot program with a long list of recommended procedures. The committee, the third of its kind in the last decade to study the implementation of body cameras in Madison, said that the cameras alone will not fix issues with the police department in Madison.
After the killing of Tony Robinson by Madison officer Matt Kenny, the city of Madison convened a civilian-led, ad hoc committee to look into a wide range of possible reforms to police policies and procedures. The current Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Committee is a product of that ad-hoc committee, which recommended further study of body-worn cameras, saying in its final report that the controversial issue deserves thorough consideration and evaluation.
Another report, released last week from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, found that two-thirds of Wisconsin police agencies already use body-worn cameras. The agencies that do not use body-worn cameras cited cost as a major obstacle – cost for camera, and for preserving footage. o. Other issues cited include lack of training or objections from local governments.
Madison Police officers do not currently wear body cameras, although members of the SWAT team do. The Madison body camera pilot program recommended by the committee would cost $83,000, which is about 0.1% of the Madison Police Department’s $82 million budget. But while the city of Madison could afford to enact the pilot program, not everyone thinks that they should. Veronica Figueroa, the executive director of nonprofit domestic violence and sexual assault support agency UNIDOS, is one of the members of Madison’s body-worn camera committee. She says that the money spent on body cameras could be better spent elsewhere.
“We have lost so many lives in 2020 due to this virus,” said Figueroa. “And here we are, sitting in a committee, talking about body cameras, and potentially recommending to the council that we spend another $83,000 in a pilot project, when we have so many people sleeping on the streets. When we have so much need in our community. When I’m sure we have kids that go to bed without food. We need to rethink this, Madison.”
Figueroa was the sole member of the committee to vote against experimenting with a body camera pilot program. The rest of the committee voted to recommend to the Common Council the use of cameras in a pilot program first. But members emphasized that body-worn cameras alone will not fix issues with the police department, and recommended a list of policies to govern body camera use.
The report listed numerous pros and cons to the issue — pros include increased transparency and trust in law enforcement, possible reduced police use of force, quicker case resolution, and more evidence for resolving complaints and charges.
The report also listed some potential downsides. These include increased criminalization of low level crimes, biased interpretations of body camera footage, invasion of privacy, potential for abuse through facial recognition technology and video tampering, and misuse for purposes of immigration enforcement. The committee also cited studies indicating that the presence of body cameras may lead to increased officer burnout and increased violence by civilians toward police officers. Furthermore, the Supreme Court previously ruled that video evidence can be so conclusive and unambiguous that the court is free to interpret it, which means a jury is not needed and the court itself can judge the case.
The report included several recommendations to mitigate potential abuses, such as including a disclaimer emphasizing potential issues with the footage whenever body camera footage is released. These include the cameras not capturing the actions of the wearer, and the jostling motion of the camera appearing to make individuals appear aggressive.. The report also recommends the newly-formed civilian oversight board and independent police monitor, who is yet to be hired, should also have access to body cam footage.
The Madison Police Department and its union have supported the adoption of body cameras for years.
The report now heads to the Madison city council, which will vote on whether or not to implement the pilot program.
Reporting for WORT News, I’m Martin Rakacolli.