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After Madison City Council vote, still more hurdles for test of police body-worn cameras

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Police body camera

The Madison City Council voted 11-9 to xxx approve a body-worn camera pilot program for the Madison Police

Despite a narrow City Council vote early Wednesday to move ahead with testing body-worn cameras for Madison police, more hurdles remain before officers start using the technology.

The council, after a marathon meeting characterized by impassioned debate, voted 11-9 about 4 a.m. to let the city begin preparations for a yearlong body-worn camera pilot program in the Police Department’s North District, with final approval contingent on a detailed design for the program and action this fall on the 2023 budget.

“We now begin the process of moving forward with this technology pilot,” Police Chief Shon Barnes said in a statement after the vote. “There is still much work to do and heavy loads to lift in order to rebuild trust with our community whom we proudly serve.”

The resolution says the Police Department has complied with the city’s ordinance governing surveillance technology but establishes several requirements before the department can proceed with a pilot program, City Attorney Michael Haas said.

The Police Department must develop policies that implement recommendations of a citizen Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee “to the greatest extent possible,” and the City Attorney’s Office must also review department policies and determine the department has complied with those recommendations, Hass said.

Some of the recommendations involve police adopting policies related to officers’ use of body cameras and use of the video. Other recommendations relate to the operations of the new Civilian Oversight Board and actions by the Dane County District Attorney, over which the city has no authority.

The City Council will make the final decision about whether the citizen committee recommendations have been satisfied, Haas said.

Further, the pilot program is subject to the council including money for cameras, training and staff time in the 2023 budget, he said.

The resolution approved early Wednesday “recognizes that while there’s potential to capture the benefits of increased accountability and transparency with body-worn cameras, there’s also the potential for unintended and decidedly negative consequences,” Ald. Tag Evers, 13th District, one of the sponsors, said later.

“The pilot, in other words, is not a box to be checked on our way to citywide implementation, but rather an experiment designed to provide relevant data as to the actual costs and benefits of (body-worn cameras),” Evers said. “The goal here is to provide council with the data to facilitate informed deliberation as to whether the benefits of (body-worn cameras) are worth the costs or whether we should target our resources to other competing needs.”

UW-Madison law professor Keith Findley, who co-chaired the citizen committee that came up with recommendations for implementing a body-cam program, called the council’s decision “the right way to proceed.”

“It recognizes that there are a lot of unknowns about what effects body cams might have under the unique circumstances and strict policies in Madison, and so the only way to know the answer to that is to conduct this randomized controlled study,” he said. “There are a lot of potential upsides to body-worn cameras, especially in Madison’s new civilian-oversight-of-police environment, but also some potential unintended consequences.”

Greg Gelembiuk, who was also on the citizen committee but later rejected its final report and opposed the resolution passed by the council early Wednesday, said that “based on a close reading of existing body-cam research, I believe the systemic harms and costs of body-cam programs outweigh benefits.

“Once a pilot is enacted, it tends to inexorably lead to full deployment,” he said. “And a Madison pilot will likely not substantively add to our understanding of effects of body cams.”

But Gelembiuk agreed that any pilot should follow the committee’s recommendations as closely as possible, and that the resolution passed early Wednesday was written to try to ensure that.

So far, limited use

Currently, only the city’s SWAT team and motorcycle officers use body-worn cameras, and Madison police squad cars have long been equipped with dashboard-mounted cameras. Barnes and the city’s police union have long supported their use.

Supporters call body cameras a tool to hold both police and civilians accountable and argue the pilot would help inform whether they’re worth pursuing citywide. Opponents see body cameras as a pricey addition to a bloated police budget and fear the devices would be used against communities of color and other marginalized groups, including undocumented immigrants.

City Council members spoke fervidly on both sides of the issue.

“We can’t stand here and continue to patronize our African American community on something that is affecting them,” Ald. Charles Myadze, 18th District, said before the vote. “We have to stand up and do what’s right. Let’s get this done.”

But several council members spoke in opposition, saying there are other ways to build police trust and that investments are better made in other areas to address inequities.

Ald. Grant Foster, 15th District, said he couldn’t support the resolution without a council conversation about where to use the city’s resources.

“We have to do it right. This is not it,” said Ald. Jael Currie, 16th District.

A parade of public speakers were also divided on the topic.

The cameras “are way, way past overdue,” resident Kim Richman said. But resident Alix Shabazz countered, “We can’t trust the police to do anything good with any resource we give them.”

The resolution allows the Police Department to continue developing plans and policies to implement body-worn cameras, Haas said. If the council approves funding in its budget deliberations this fall, the department could start the pilot as early as next January, although it’s likely that additional time will be needed to obtain the cameras and equipment and to train officers, he said.

Other council action

Also at the meeting, the council:

  • Voted 12-8 to approve a new “resource recovery special charge” of about $50 a year per household that would apply to all curbside recycling customers, including most single-family homes and properties with eight or fewer residential units and some smaller commercial parcels. The charge will not be imposed on properties that use private recycling services, including larger residential parcels, most commercial properties and all industrial properties.
  • Voted unanimously to develop a permanent shelter for homeless men at a vacant, city-owned property at 1902 Bartillon Drive on the Far East Side, and start the process of selecting design and engineering services and an operator for the facility. It will take about three years to complete the project.
  • Overwhelmingly approved a resolution to use $41.6 million in federal funding to buy 27 electric buses for the coming first phase of the city’s bus rapid transit system, and approving the next steps for the 15.5-mile first phase of the BRT project that will run roughly from East Towne Mall to West Towne Mall.
  • Voted 12-8 to approve a reconstruction of Lake Mendota Drive, including curb, gutter and sidewalks, from Baker Avenue to the city limits that was opposed by many neighbors in the area. The project will be done in phases in 2022, 2023 and 2024.

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