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Surveillance in Madison

Madison officials added $123,000 to the proposed 2018 capital budget to undergo a pilot program for police body cameras. The picture shown is a UW-Madison police officer wearing a body camera.

And this is a council that’s been happy to do the bidding of a small number of self-appointed police reformers who believe city police officers have behavior problems.

Last month, at the same meeting at which it narrowly approved a pilot project to record some of that behavior via police body cameras, the council’s Finance Committee unanimously approved adding 18 surveillance cameras around the city.

Those cameras come in addition to the 800 or so cameras the city has indoors and outdoors, including 60 Downtown, and the who-knows-how-many privately owned cameras police are able to draw upon. And “the quality of surveillance cameras is light-years better than what we were seeing just a few years back,” said police spokesman Joel DeSpain.

In a way, we are citizens under constant government surveillance.

This isn’t necessarily new or bad. Lots of cities have surveillance cameras, and if you’re among those who believe the creepiness of being watched is outweighed by cameras’ ability to help solve crime, then I guess that’s OK.

But turnabout is only fair play.

Cameras attached to the uniform fronts of patrol officers have the potential for revealing something close to the unvarnished truth about the way cops treat suspects day in and day out, because no city officials worth their salt — and certainly not ones as suspicious of police as Madison council members — would deploy them without rules to ensure they can’t be misused by police.

Not only has body camera adoption moved at a snail’s pace in Madison, so has the adoption of rules for using cameras.

In May, the council approved 13 “action items“ recommended by the council’s work group on police and community relations. One item the council assigned to itself was to come up with a policy for the use of all city surveillance equipment, including police body cameras, if and when they’re adopted.

Council President Marsha Rummel suggested work to create that policy would start after the council receives a $400,000 consultant’s report on the police department, ordered last year after six fatal police shootings over four years. (In only one of those shootings have police been found at fault, in civil court.)

“We should be getting the (consultant’s) report in December,” Rummel said. “I also heard it may be submitted next month and their recommendations for body-worn cameras will be in it.”

Meanwhile, police have long been ready to accept body cameras, and already have policies in place for the cameras worn by SWAT teams and mounted on police car dashboards, among others governing their use of video and audio surveillance. Two state lawmakers have also introduced proposals on use of the cameras.

The lack of a new, citywide policy on surveillance didn’t stop council members from voting for more surveillance cameras that police can use to watch us.

Watching police, though, is largely limited to what bystanders choose to record on their smartphones, and bystanders are under no obligation to the unvarnished truth.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.