When police are accused of using excessive force in the line of duty, the attempt to ferret out the truth often comes down to the word of officers against eyewitnesses. That was true in the case of the musician shot by a Madison police officer in November 2012, and it will likely be the scenario in Ferguson, Mo., where the police shooting of an unarmed African American teenager has sparked protests and rioting.
But Ald. Scott Resnick, who is running for mayor, thinks there is a better way. In the name of transparency, he wants police officers to wear body cameras that would be activated "anytime they are interacting with the public."
He says he would like microphones to be included, but is open to feedback from police on that score.
Resnick says outfitting police with wearable cameras is a "win-win" for officers and citizens: "If only we had that firsthand account, it could shed so much light on what is happening."
He argues that video of police interactions would help protect the public from police abuse and also shield officers from false accusations of misconduct or brutality.
"When you're being watched you're always on your best behavior, whether that's the officer or the public interacting with the officer," he says.
Resnick is drafting a resolution to introduce to the Common Council that would direct the city's Public Safety Review Committee to begin discussing the potential use of police body cameras. He would like to see the committee bring interested parties to the table, including representatives from the police department and police union.
Resnick estimates the cameras would cost between $350 and $500; roughly 300 would be needed to outfit the force. He says he'd like to see limited implementation in a pilot program next year and might try to insert some money in the budget for it.
He says that he has not spoken to all council members but that the ones he has approached have been "very supportive."
"Madison should be at the forefront of this technology," says Resnick. "It goes back to a transparent police department. It's such a strong value for many of my colleagues. This is the right time for that discussion."
Cost and technology
Mayor Paul Soglin, when asked for comment, is underwhelmed by Resnick's proposal. "What is the news?" he asks. "The police department has been examining that for some time."
"There are a number of things to take into consideration, mostly to do with the quality of the technology and the cost of the technology," he adds. But Soglin is confident the day will come when Madison police wear cameras.
"It's a matter of when the technology is satisfactory," he says.
Soglin says he is expecting a recommendation from the police department on the topic soon.
The mayor and Police Chief Mike Koval both point out that Madison police already videotape citizen interactions in a number of arenas.
The department has been using in-car video cameras for roughly 10 years, for instance. These cameras are about to be retired, though, says Capt. Richard Bach. About 130 new cams, which cost roughly $1 million total, have arrived in Madison and will be installed soon.
Koval also notes that all traffic stops are recorded, as are many interviews and interrogations.
And members of the SWAT team already wear cameras when carrying out an operation. Capt. Victor Wahl says the team has six cameras they've used for about two years. Worn on helmets, the cameras have been handy not only for documentation purposes, but for training, says Wahl. "We use them to debrief and improve how we do things," he says.
Koval, like Soglin, says the future includes body cams for officers. "It's not a question of if it's going to be used in MPD. It's a question of when."
But, he adds, "The price point is untenable right now to do for a workforce our size."
Koval hopes that as technology improves, prices will come down. But he says he would not feel conflicted if forced to choose between hiring five new neighborhood officers or buying body cameras. "I'm going to go with neighborhood officers every time," says Koval. "It's a question of what better serves the greater good."
Not a 'reliable tool'
Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, says that some police departments in the state are already trying out body cameras in pilot programs, including in Brookfield and West Allis.
"The responses have been mixed so far," says Palmer. "Not because officers don't like them. But technology is not to the point where it's so useful."
There are a few kinds of body cameras on the market. Some officers wear special glasses, and other cameras sit on an officer's shoulder.
There are problems with both, says Palmer. "Shoulders aren't square, so the perspective you often get is not that good." And the camera that hangs off glasses can obstruct an officer's view on that side of the face.
Palmer anticipates body cameras will become more prevalent throughout the law enforcement profession, but the current technology cannot yet be used "as a reliable tool."
One study of a police department in Rialto, Cal., however, does suggest the technology can have an impact.
According to The New York Times, the New York-based Police Foundation found the use of force by Rialto officers, who started wearing cameras in 2012, fell by nearly 60% compared to the previous 12 months. The number of complaints filed against officers also fell by 88% over the same period.
Resnick says he hopes to work with the police department and union to find a camera model that is "lightweight, weather resistant, and does not impact an officer's mobility." Such cameras, he believes, "have reached the point of being cost-effective and reliable."