Madison Common Council gives approval to police body-worn camera pilot program

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    MADISON, Wis. — Police officers on Madison’s North Side are one step closer to donning body-worn cameras after the Common Council gave its blessing late Tuesday night to move forward with a long-debated pilot program.

    After roughly an hour of public comment and three and a half hours of discussion and debate, the Common Council voted 16-4 to move forward with a plan to equip officers in the city’s north police district with 48 cameras later this summer.

    During Tuesday’s meeting, multiple alders voiced concern about language in the resolution that said the council recognizes the department’s “substantial compliance” with the recommendations of a January 2021 report from the city’s Body Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee. That 57-page report concluded the technology should only be implemented if a number of accountability steps were put in place, including giving the city’s independent police monitor and Police Civilian Oversight Board full access to footage and ensuring the Dane County District Attorney’s Office reviews all relevant video before deciding whether to file charges in a case.

    In a memo in June, City Attorney Mike Haas and Assistant City Attorney Marci Kurtz wrote that there were areas where the department’s policy does not comply with the committee’s report.

    “However, our office does not have the in-depth expertise regarding policing and the specific capabilities of Body Worn Cameras necessary to determine whether implementation of some of the recommendations are practical or advisable, making it impossible to determine whether the MPD’s proposed Pilot Program meets standards described as ‘substantial compliance’ and ‘to the greatest extent feasible,'” they continued.

    Among the items the city attorney’s office said are not covered in the department’s policy but were recommended in the report are efforts to stabilize video to reduce distortions caused by an officer’s body movement, the use of technology to record at least 30 seconds of video prior to the camera’s activation, and a restriction on officers reviewing footage prior to finishing an initial report on an incident except in extreme circumstances.

    Instead, the department’s policy includes limits on officers’ ability to view footage if they’re suspected of a policy violation or serious use of force. It also prohibits officers from editing or sharing footage and requires them to report any footage that may contain policy or law violations.

    “The Council’s previous Resolution [from 2022] requires that the Council provide further approval prior to MPD implementing its BWC Pilot Program,” the attorneys wrote in the June memo. “After reviewing this memo and relevant documents if the Council believes that MPD’s policy is in substantial compliance with the BWC Feasibility Review Committee Report it may authorize the implementation of MPD’s BWC Pilot Program by adopting [the resolution].”

    Alders also voiced concerns about the potential future costs of a larger body camera implementation.

    Downtown Alder Marsha Rummel voted in favor of the pilot but stressed she may not vote for a department-wide rollout in the future.

    “I have a lot of doubt about the cost of that program,” she said. “When we are always struggling with money, how are we going to say that that’s the best use of our money is to train, store data, have officers spend whatever time is involved in reporting what they’ve collected… in their day of wearing this thing? That’s a lot of time and money we’re going to be spending.”

    The city’s 2021 capital budget included $83,000 in general obligation borrowing to cover the costs of the pilot program itself. That money has been carried forward, so no additional funding is needed for the pilot.

    Currently, motorcycle officers and members of the department’s SWAT team use body-worn cameras manufactured by Panasonic — the former due to the lack of dashboard cameras on their vehicles — but no large-scale rollout of the technology has been implemented within MPD. The department also does business with Axon and Motorola, both of which also manufacture body cameras, Police Chief Shon Barnes said.

    Alders, committee members and others, including Barnes, have stressed the cameras are not a one-and-done step in the effort to build and foster trust between the community and the police department.

    “I’m not going to tell you that body-worn cameras [are] a panacea for all of the problems in policing. I’m not going to tell you that body-worn cameras do not have a cost. They do, those are the realities,” Barnes told News 3 Now on Monday. “I think sometimes people think that I have not explored or considered that. I certainly have and I do believe that is a necessary tool in law enforcement.”

    Alder Barbara Harrington-McKinney, who represents portions of the city’s southwest side and is one of several sponsors of the resolution to move forward with the program, said it’s necessary to implement in order to gain answers to the larger questions that would come up before a department-wide implementation.

    “It is time to move forward,” she said. “Until you have a parent collapse in your arms, sobbing, asking the question, ‘If only I knew what those last hours of life [were] like.’ Body-worn cameras, as stated, [are] not a panacea that will guarantee public safety, but we can no longer depend on personal cell phones to capture and record what happened.”

    In a statement early Wednesday morning, Barnes called the council’s decision “a move forward for Madison.”

    “For nearly a decade, city leaders have questioned whether [body-worn cameras] belong here. In that time, they’ve become an industry standard,” he added. “We know they won’t fix the problems of policing, but they will serve as a critical tool for transparency and accountability.”


    The long history of Madison’s body-worn camera debate

    Madison leaders have debated whether the police department should implement body-worn cameras for the greater part of the last decade.

    In late 2014, then-Alder Scott Resnick proposed creating a body camera pilot program; the Common Council pushed funding for the proposal back to 2016 at the earliest.

    At that time, then-Police Chief Mike Koval asked for time to study the idea and expressed some concerns that the technology could have a chilling effect on officers.

    The deadly March 6, 2015, shooting of Tony Robinson by Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny led some to advocate speeding up the process to implement body cameras, but in September of that year, the city’s Community Policing and Body Camera Ad Hoc Committee voted 4-2 against a proposed body camera pilot program. The following month, a full council vote was delayed.

    In December 2017, an outside consulting firm released a roughly 250-page report on the Madison Police Department’s policies and practices. That report concluded it was “imperative that clear policy is developed before body-worn cameras are actually deployed in Madison.” Among the recommendations were establishing guidance on when officers should and should not use the cameras, guidelines on what footage from the cameras would be released, and implementing accountability measures for department employees who do not follow proper policies.

    In response to that report, the police department said in late January 2018 that it would “continue to deploy body-worn cameras in limited circumstances (like SWAT operations),” but added city leaders would need to make the decision about wider use.

    “If the department is provided direction (and funding) to expand the use of body-worn cameras we will implement the program as effectively and efficiently as possible,” the department said at the time. “This process will include the development of a comprehensive [standard operating procedure] on body-worn camera use, to reflect national best practices and community input.”

    In that same document, the city’s attorney’s office said it “supports body cameras for the simple reason that the cameras will assist the City in determining potential civil liability.”

    In the days following the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis in May 2020, then-Madison Police Chief Victor Wahl and then-Alder Paul Skidmore said they received dozens of emails demanding the city move ahead with a body camera rollout.