Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back last week by a Kenosha police officer — a chilling and excessive use of force that sparked days of protest, rioting and destruction.
Millions of people have seen a bystander’s video that captured the moment from across the street. An officer grabbed the back of Blake’s shirt and repeatedly fired his gun, critically injuring Blake as Blake leaned into an SUV carrying his children.
Another video recorded by an onlooker from a different angle shows Blake struggling with officers, apparently on the ground, then walking around the SUV and being repeatedly shot.
Both videos are brief. What isn’t shown are the events leading up to the shooting. Was Blake trying to help break up a domestic dispute, as his lawyer contends? Or was Blake armed with a knife and fighting officers, putting one in a headlock, before shrugging off attempts to stun him, as the police union insists?
Body cameras on the Kenosha officers could have shown with much more clarity and length what happened, without having to rely on conflicting accounts and blurry cellphone images taken from a distance.
But the Kenosha officers — including Rusten Sheskey, who pulled the trigger — weren’t wearing cameras on their uniforms, which is something far too many law enforcement agencies fail to do, including Madison’s police force. In fact, a survey by Lee Enterprises journalists of 80 police agencies across the Midwest found more than half — 43 — don’t use body cameras to increase transparency, accountability and public safety. And 13 of the 80 departments contacted by Lee reporters in Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois don’t even have cameras mounted in their patrol cars.
That needs to change, especially in Madison, where the City Council has dithered for years over whether to adopt body-worn cameras. Not even a limited and inexpensive test of uniform cameras on the North Side could garner enough council support to proceed.
Instead, council members are touting a civilian board and independent monitor to try to hold its diverse and professional police department more accountable to the public. But without clear evidence from body cameras — showing what really happens during controversial interactions — the city will be left with conflicting stories that breed distrust and can lead to multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
Critics of cop cameras often point out the obvious — that they’re not a panacea. But neither are the civilian board and independent monitor. Nothing by itself will fix every problem with law enforcement, our society and racial strife.
What body-worn cameras on patrol officers will do is improve investigations into allegations of wrongdoing by officers and the public. They will provide hard, unbiased evidence of troubling events, improving the delivery of justice.
In the wake of Blake’s tragic shooting and subsequent gun violence that killed two people, Kenosha leaders are pledging to equip officers with uniform cameras, something that’s been stalled for years. So is Kenosha County. So should Madison.
The cameras can automatically turn on and off, depending on the type of call officers are responding to. That should prevent officers from turning cameras off to hide bad behavior. The state Legislature recently defined how and when police video must be released to the public, with reasonable exceptions for privacy. That should streamline the process for storing files and responding to open records requests.
Cop cameras have the potential to improve the behavior of police and the public when everyone knows they’re being recorded. That should lead to better outcomes. And when it doesn’t, the public and investigators will have much more and better evidence to judge what happened and who is at fault.
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