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Body cameras on police — simple idea, complex ramifications

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Ashley Luthern/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
August 28, 2014

More than 2,000 people have signed an online petition to require Milwaukee police officers to wear body cameras that would record everything they do on the job.

The fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has put the technology in the public eye nationwide — and a forthcoming report says police agencies have seen lower rates of force and citizen complaints after body cameras were put on officers.

Milwaukee tested five models of body cameras on city streets last year, and the Police Department plans to get 50 cameras for a pilot program within the 1,800-member department next year. For some who have marched in Milwaukee in solidarity with Ferguson, it's not soon enough. But the process takes time, Mayor Tom Barrett said.

“There are issues that can be dealt with but it's not as easy as just turning on a switch,” Barrett said.

Although criminal justice and civil liberties experts acknowledge the benefits of body cameras, they also warn of practical considerations: how the technology would be implemented, what policies would govern it, and how it could unintentionally widen the divide between officers and the communities they serve.

An update on the body camera pilot program and discussion about the department's dashboard camera policy are expected at the next Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission meeting on Sept. 4.

“It's not a question of if, it's a question of when,” commission director Michael Tobin said of body cameras.

PRACTICAL CONCERNS

It seems simple: Put cameras on all officers and have video evidence of all officer interactions.

“The one big upside to the body cameras is it obviously records what happens,” said Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“Had the officer in Ferguson been recording, we could have a pretty good idea of what took place,” he added.

The biggest downside, he said, is the potential “chilling effect on police-citizen interaction.”

“Policing is all about relationships and the willingness of citizens to talk to police,” Kenney said. “If I know I'm being recorded, I'm less likely to have that willingness. ... It could increase police supervision, but it could impact police effectiveness.”

Privacy of citizens and officers is among the key practical and legal considerations that come with the cameras. Others include:

-- Data collection: How long would video be stored? Who has access to it? Would the footage be publicly available under open records laws? Should police use video for investigating crimes as well as holding officers accountable?

-- Technology capabilities: How reliable and durable are the body camera systems? How long before they become outdated? How will they integrate with existing technology, such as squad car cameras? How susceptible are they to tampering?

-- Cost: The price of body cameras ranges from $120 to $2,000 apiece. Most agencies recently surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum reported spending between $800 and $1,200 for each camera. Data storage was even more expensive. The New Orleans Police Department has a plan for 350 body cameras at an anticipated cost of $1.2 million over five years, most of which has been allocated for data storage, according to the forum.

Janesville police have 36 body cameras — some are wired into protective glasses, others are pinned on shoulder lapels — that officers have used routinely for about five years with some technological glitches along the way, Chief David Moore said.

Officers find the cameras particularly useful when addressing citizen complaints, he said. Janesville police already have released videos taken from the cameras that show officers involved in a river rescue and a rooftop rescue.

Whitewater and Butler police also use body cameras, as do hundreds of other departments nationwide.

Before Milwaukee joins them, officials should have clear, well-thought out policies and training guidelines in place, said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.

“It's one of those issues that is attractive when you first hear about it and at the end of the day it can be a win-win for both citizens and police officers, if it's done right,” Ahmuty said.

DEPARTMENT POLICIES

Many police agencies, including the Milwaukee Police Department, have faced similar challenges with squad car cameras, commonly called dash-cams, and found the devices aren't foolproof.

“We know dash-cams malfunction a lot and sometimes they malfunction because (officers) didn't want them on,” Kenney said. “But body cameras are even more prone to malfunction given they attach to the body, and policing by nature involves some rolling around now and then.”

The effectiveness of body cameras — like that of squad car cameras — hinges on the availability, reliability and proper use of the technology.

The Milwaukee Police Department began using squad car cameras in the early 2000s.

Of the department's 334 vehicles, 190 have digital recording devices. As the remaining cars are replaced, cameras will be installed in the new cars, according to the department.

The city spent $900,000 to replace broken squad car cameras with the digital models in early 2013 after the Common Council learned more than 100 squad cameras weren't working. The disclosure came in the midst of publicity about two high-profile cases captured on video: the in-custody death of Derek Williams and the arrest of Jeanine Tracy, who was punched, dragged out of a squad car by the hair and struck in the stomach by Officer Richard Schoen, who was fired. He has appealed his dismissal in court.

While the Tracy case shows video can help clarify what happened in an incident, the Williams case and others show technology doesn't always lead to the result the public might expect.

The video of Williams gasping for breath and begging for help in the back of a squad car sparked community outrage and protests after it was posted to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's website. The video accompanied a Journal Sentinel investigation that led to Williams' manner of death being changed from natural to homicide. Authorities re-examined the case and convened an inquest, at which a jury recommended misdemeanor charges against three officers. Ultimately, none of the officers was charged or disciplined.

Last year, the department set new standards for recording officers' interactions with the public after a man who suffered from mental illness died in police custody. The squad car where he was detained had a camera, but the officers did not turn it on.

John Kriewaldt, who was taken into custody in 2012 for causing a disturbance at a group home, injured himself by banging his head against the metal support for the plastic window between the front and back seats of the squad car. His heart stopped before paramedics arrived, and he died at a hospital.

In its review of the case, the Fire and Police Commission determined the officer did not have a chance to activate the recording equipment.

After Kriewaldt's death, the department required more frequent use of squad car cameras and the body microphones that go with them. The department also amended rulesto specifically state that officers will be subject to discipline if they fail to use the recording devices.

The new digital dashboard cameras continue recording for 41/2 minutes after the incident is over and cannot be turned off by officers. But Milwaukee police officials are seeking to eliminate or cut down that time, saying the extra footage costs too much to store.

The ACLU and others have objected to the proposed change at recent commission meetings and say the extra time helps ensure police accountability. The commission has yet to make a decision and will discuss the policy at its next meeting.

'ONE PIECE OF THE PUZZLE'

While body cameras can provide another layer of police accountability, the devices alone don't resolve the fundamental tensions between police and the communities they serve.

“The premise of the cameras is really based on our unwillingness to grasp that everything the police do is in our name,” said Eugene O'Donnell, a law professor and a former police officer and prosecutor.

He added: “We want to be able to throw the cops out there and have it both ways: Use force and most of the time it will be OK. When it doesn't, we're going to pull up our armchairs and critique them. The cops are willing to risk their life and limb, and now with cameras, their career hangs on the balance on every call they go on.”

O'Donnell suggested that citizen complaints decline with the body camera use because officers are not as willing to engage with the public, knowing everything will be recorded.

“The public is not going to be real thrilled about being on cameras, and I think it's going to create distance and formality in policing,” he said. “Basically, it sets the tone for an initial distrust and it's hard to see who's being more distrusted. Is it the police or the citizen that we distrust?”

A study by the Police Executive Research Forum and the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services noted that in jurisdictions where officers have discretion to turn off the body cameras, the devices did not have a significant impact on officers' abilities to gather information from the public, according to a summary of their report, set to be released by the end of the year.

Of the departments surveyed, only a few had police record all citizen interactions. It was more common for officers to activate the cameras when responding to calls for service and other law enforcement activities, such as traffic stops, arrests, searches, interrogations and pursuits.

The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission will use the full report as a tool to develop policies here, said Tobin, who will travel to Kansas City in two weeks for a meeting of police-citizen oversight boards about body cameras.

“Technology is only one piece of the puzzle,” Tobin said. “What we're trying to do in the Milwaukee Police Department is change the culture of the department. Will the body cameras help with the cultural shift? Yes it definitely will. But it certainly isn't the final answer to any of the problems that we have.”



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