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Milwaukee Police Chief Warns Body Cameras Could Have Unintended Consequences

WPA Pool

As the use of police body cameras across the country grows, Milwaukee police are piloting the technology.

Several African American leaders have moved the issue front and center because of recent police shootings. Those include the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee. Some police leaders agree body cameras might be a good idea, although there could be unattended consequences.

President of Milwaukee's NAACP branch James Hall says communities must address the issue of black men dying at the hands of white officers.

“It’s clear that something is wrong. It’s especially clear when you take into account the disproportionality of shootings with respect to race and the fact that many of these young black men are shot multiple times,” Hall says.

What Hall would like to see are officers getting better training and body cameras.

“They tend to increase accountability, reduce complaints and generally are believed to have somewhat of a civilizing effect, if I may use that word, on police in terms of encounters with citizens,” Hall says.

Hall says the NAACP has collected thousands of signatures from people calling on Milwaukee Police Department officers to wear cameras while on duty. Police Chief Ed Flynn says he’s not opposed to the idea. If fact, his department began researching the technology nearly three years ago – and put out a request for proposals early this year.

“As of August, the purchasing process is still working its way out, this being government, but we’ve asked for $50,000 to buy 50 cameras so we can do a really in depth pilot project in the field,” Flynn says.

Yet, Flynn cautions that body cameras may not solve all problems and answer all questions when it comes to police interaction with the public.

“There’s always a chance that particularly with a body camera we’re hands on with somebody, we’re grappling and this incredibly important piece of video is going to get knocked askew and we’re going to get 45 seconds of tape of the roof of a house or a street light or some other such things," Flynn says. "Technology might break. And of course every time technology fails there’s a body of opinion that says oh, it’s been tampered with. It’s part of a cover up, somebody’s not revealing whatever happened. No technological solution to a human problem is ever perfect."

Flynn says residents might also want to consider what police body cameras might mean.

“We intervene in the most private, crisis driven experiences of people’s lives. Right now we don’t put them on camera every time we’re in their house dealing with their family crisis," Flynn says. "And now we are saying as a society no, no, no, no, we want to send the police into everyone’s house and record everything they see and record the voices as well."

Flynn says those recordings could one day be subject to open records laws.

Dan Davis is Deputy Chief of Investigations for the Janesville Police Department. It started using body cameras back in 2008, and Davis says they can provide more crucial information than written police reports.

“Our officers, as all police officers, are required to make some very critical and very quick decisions and sometimes it’s pretty easy to pass judgment on their behavior or on their decision making when we weren’t really there and we didn’t see," Davis says. "And when you read a report, a report doesn’t give you the opportunity to take in all the environmental clues that the officers are taking in, which is all part of the decision making process."

Davis says so far the only con has been storing all the video captured. He says it’s expensive.

The Milwaukee Police Department will update the Police and Fire Commission Thursday evening on the potential use of body cameras. People, including the NAACP’s James Hall, also plan to attend.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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