Ald. Milele Coggs is expected to introduce legislation before the Common Council this week requiring the Milwaukee Police Department to acquire and use body cameras. The intent is to provide an impartial record of controversial incidents, such as the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo.
The legislation would require the police department to provide cameras that officers would have to wear while working in the community. It would include a deadline for when the cameras must be in use, as well as guidelines for their use, according to Coggs.
The cameras are said to benefit police departments by lowering incidents of citizen complaints against police, as in the case of Dontre Hamilton, who was shot to death by a Milwaukee police officer in Red Arrow Park in April. Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Edward Flynn have come out in favor of the cameras, and the department has plans for a pilot program.
Coggs said the cameras could save the city money, based on fewer lawsuits filed against police. She said other municipalities have saved money after they began using body cameras, but purchasing the cameras and supporting technology would be an initial expense.
The idea of outfitting police officers with body cameras became a hot topic in Milwaukee last month while the incidents in Ferguson were unfolding. Coggs, however, was ahead of the curve, having worked on the issue since February. She began researching the issue after noticing that several police departments around the country, including a few in Wisconsin, were successfully adopting the new technology.
But implementation won’t be as simple as passing out cameras in the squad room and switching them on in the street. The American Civil Liberties Union and others point out that safeguarding privacy rights is an issue, particularly in domestic situations and cases involving sexual abuse. Also, the department needs to consider issues surrounding an officer’s discretion to turn a camera off. There is also the matter of cost, not only for the cameras, but for cataloguing and storing captured images.
Coggs hopes her legislation will help move the issue forward in a timely fashion. “We all know good ideas don’t always get implemented as they should,” Coggs said. “This is a serious issue. I believe all Milwaukee police officers should be outfitted with cameras.”
During a recent community demonstration in support of the citizens of Ferguson, more than 15 local groups, including NAACP Milwaukee and the Center for Youth Engagement, endorsed a proposal requiring front-facing cameras on police. The proposal states that the cameras will increase safety, while helping ensure accountability on the part of police.
Community organizer Tracey Dent recently drafted a petition supporting the cameras and collected more than 2,100 signatures from Milwaukee and surrounding communities in about a week. “People started hearing about the petition and signatures started coming in fast. The community wants this,” Dent said.
In nearby Port Washington, police have been wearing body cameras that record video and audio for about four years. “Everyone has been extremely happy with them,” said Capt. Michael Davel. “With the cameras there is never any question about what did or did not happen, and since they accompany the officer they record much more than dashboard-mounted cameras in the squad cars.”
While passersby can record video of police interactions with citizens, those scenes might only capture the final moments of an incident out of context. Body cameras worn by police document everything, which is why there appears to be a broad consensus for them in Milwaukee.
With the city’s budgeting process for 2015 beginning soon and a pilot program moving forward, the city will begin to address how to pay for cameras and guidelines for using them. In the meantime, elected officials such as Coggs and community leaders say they are determined to keep a spotlight on the issue.