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MPD Looks to Navigate Privacy and Ethical Concerns that Come With Use of Body Cameras

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Janesville Police Department
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Body camera used by the Janesville Police Department

Police forces across the country are turning to body cameras as a way of easing tension between officers and community members. The pace of adopting the technology has accelerated in recent times, following the deaths of several African American men in police custody. 

For instance, in Ferguson Missouri, it was Michael Brown; in Milwaukee, Dontre Hamilton. Late Thursday, the Milwaukee Police Department presented its plan for using cameras to the Fire and Police Commission. There are ethical issues to consider. 

If Mayor Tom Barrett has his way, by the end of next year all of Milwaukee’s 1200 patrol officers will be outfitted with a body camera. He says the cameras will allow the public to build more trust in the force.

“I want our police officers to be in a position to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that they are acting professionally. I think that these cameras will aid our police officers,” Barrett says.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn says this is new territory for Americans and police departments, which is why he says protocol has to be established.

“And balancing a reasonable expectation of privacy when you summon the police department to deal with a family crisis has to be balanced with our need to be accountable and transparent. So there are opportunities to turn them off in certain types of calls for assistance and certain types of dramatic circumstances,” Flynn says.

Flynn says the department has sought input from the city attorney’s office, the ACLU and other stakeholders. Concerns about privacy are at the forefront of many of today’s conversations about police body cameras. Justin Hansford says we need to be talking about ethical issues as well. Hansford is a law professor at St. Louis University School of Law and part of the Black Lives Matter Movement. He has also worked closely with Mike Brown’s mother – the young Missouri man a police officer shot to death. Hansford says the mother had to repeatedly relive the incident because it was recorded.

“I was with her a couple of times when we were trying to do our daily preparation and go about our lives and she would have to walk past a TV screen that shows her dead sons body,” Hansford says. 

So Hansford insists the decision over whether to release videos police record depicting deaths should be up to the families involved.

“Outside of that, not only should that information be public, if it were up to me, the body cam footage would be handled by a third party.  Put it in the hands of a neutral party that immediately will give that access to people who are requesting it, and they’re not going to stop and consider whether or not it reflects poorly or favorably on police,” Hansford says.

As for when police must use the cameras, Milwaukee’s proposal calls for them to be activated during all investigations or enforcement contact. Everything from traffic stops to interviews to when officers are transferring citizens. People would be allowed to request the camera be turned off.

While communities set their policies, Jim Bueermann says people across the country are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of police body cameras. Bueermann is president of the Police Foundation, a police research organization.

“In the next five years or so, body cameras employed by the police will become as ubiquitous as an officers handcuffs, portable radio or their firearm,” Bueermann says.

Yet communities such as Milwaukee still need to set standard operating procedures for this new form of transparency.

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