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Police body cameras

The UW-Madison Police Department began using body-worn cameras in 2015. Madison's City Council will discuss adding funding for an officer body camera pilot program for the Madison Police Department as part of 2018 budget. 

With a history of opposing police officer body cameras, the Madison City Council will debate funding for a pilot program as part of its 2018 budget session next week.

The Finance Committee previously approved a $123,000 budget amendment to fund the pilot sponsored by Ald. Paul Skidmore, District 9, on a 4-3 vote. If the City Council approves the budget change, it would need to approve a separate resolution next year to authorize the release of the funds.

Under the proposal, the funds would go toward 47 body-worn cameras, related equipment, training and overtime fees as part of a pilot program in the Madison Police Department's north district.

Skidmore admitted to being a “broken record” on wanting to test how police body cameras work for the city.

“Once again, body cameras, like other security cameras, are amoral. They’re neither good nor bad,” Skidmore said. “They are a mechanism for transparency and openness.”

On Thursday, the state Assembly approved a Republican-backed proposal that would limit the public's access to police body camera footage. Under the proposal, which moves on to the Senate, all police body camera footage would be exempt from the state's open records law except for video involving injuries, deaths, arrests and searches. 

In December 2015, the City Council followed recommendations from a citizen-led panel and voted against allowing officers to wear body cameras.

At the time, the Community Policing and Body Camera Ad Hoc Committee said the city should instead focus on building trust and cooperation between the community and police department. UNIDOS Executive Director Veronica Figueroa, who chaired the ad hoc committee, does not feel cameras are the answer to bridging that divide.

“I really don’t think that a camera is going to resolve the issues the police has with the community or the community has with the police,” Figueroa said.

While a consulting group is conducting an extensive review of the Madison Police Department, a City Council work group studied short-term recommendations for the MPD. Among those included a recommendation to analyze the city’s policies regarding any kind of surveillance, the group’s vice chair Ald. Shiva Bidar, District 5, said.

Bidar has proposed an amendment to remove Skidmore’s proposal for the pilot program, according to City Council budget amendments released Friday. While Bidar said she is not philosophically opposed to body cameras, she does not feel the city should undertake a pilot program at this time.

“Given all the other priorities and the fact that the police department themselves nor the most impacted communities have prioritized this as something it would like to see immediately, I don’t think it is time to move forward with this,” Bidar said.

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Bidar also wants to wait for the OIR Group’s $400,000 study results, which are expected to be released Dec. 14.

The police department’s SWAT team already uses body cameras and all marked police cars have cameras on their dashboards. Chief Mike Koval is hoping results of the study will provide direction on the body camera issue.

Koval said he would support a pilot program of body cameras but leans on what the Council will decide.

“I don't want it to be said the police department was unilaterally making this very expensive decision — and one that deals with philosophical issues of privacy and intrusion — without the consensus and permission of policymakers who shape and frame budgetary priorities as well as for the unique needs of Madison,” Koval said.

Mayor Paul Soglin is in favor of trying the pilot program to see how it works in “real time” and to get a better understanding of the long-term costs.

“I think it’s a reasonable solution,” Soglin said.

The City Council will begin budget deliberations Monday, Nov. 13 at 5:30 p.m. in room 201 of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.