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Questions Loom Over Milwaukee Police Department's Public Surveillance Cameras

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Technological advances have made some aspects of policing easier. For example, surveillance cameras can help police monitor crime remotely and allow police departments to capture images of criminals and in some cases track them.

But what happens with that data? How else is it used, who has access, and are people in minority communities unfairly targeted?

Those were just a few of the questions brought up at a Fire and Police Commission research committee public hearing Tuesday night over the creation of a standard operating procedure for the use of public surveillance cameras.

For years, the city of Milwaukee has been using public surveillance cameras on public property to monitor crime in certain areas. We don't know how many of these cameras are in use or where they are located. But police have said the goal is to keep the public safe.

Gretchen Schuldt, with the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, says there are many unanswered questions regarding these cameras — and she thinks the number of cameras continue to increase.

"I don't know if police are filming through windows and doors into privately owned businesses. There's a whole lot of questions around that. Is that a search if they see anything? We don't know what success of these cameras … who pays for them … we know they're purchased through grants," she says. "How are they supported for ongoing operations? How much do we pay to store the video?"

The meeting comes as the Milwaukee Police Department has the opportunity to purchase more cameras with money from the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, the Fire and Police Commission is considering drafting standard operating procedures for the cameras' use.

Emilio De Torre, with the Wisconsin ACLU, says he has two major concerns. His first concern is about technology integration.

"Our governments don't have the proper mechanism to determine how law enforcement begins to integrate technology on a regular basis. This week it's cameras and communities, next week maybe it's machinery that can read your cell phones or your laptops or drones that can peer into your houses. These are all things that exist," De Torre says.

His second concern has to do with the so-called over policing of certain people and communities.

"The other thing is this common discourse on how we are adding more elements that could conceivably target non-white communities and create again a surveilled mentality where folks are being considered criminals before they even do anything by being surveilled constantly. That's a horrible way to live," De Torre says.

With the cameras already in use, they are being monitored by police 24-hours a day. De Torre says the fact that someone is always watching is problematic. Instead of watching people all day, he says the police department could simply get a warrant to view the video if a crime is committed and they need to see if it was captured.

Regina Howard, with the Milwaukee Police Department, says the cameras are nothing more than another tool in the toolbox for officers and she says they are not targeting one specific group of people as they are on both the north and south sides of the city.

"The cameras are not aimed in anyone's living room. That doesn't happen. There are public cameras just about everywhere. On state highways that go directly through our city streets, there are public cameras. So these cameras are not unheard of," Howard says.

In the end, the Fire and Police Commission committee didn't make a decision about writing new standard operating procedures for the surveillance cameras, saying there are too many unanswered questions. Commissioners say those questions need to be answered before moving forward.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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