After Years of Research, Racine, Wis., Asks for Body Camera Funds

Technological shortcomings and other issues have stopped the police department from pursuing body cameras since 2015, but now officials are finally ready to deploy them.

by Christina Lieffring, The Journal Times / October 22, 2018

(TNS) — After years of research, the Racine, Wis., Police Department plans to equip officers with body-worn cameras in early 2019, as long as the funds allocated in the proposed 2019 budget are approved by the city council.

Mayor Cory Mason announced the initiative during his budget address last week. Mason said that, if implemented, the cameras would be "a good step forward for transparency and public confidence."

The proposed capital improvement projects budget for 2019 includes $384,000 for purchasing approximately 160 units and $108,000 for purchasing dash camera equipment compatible with the body camera system.

If the funds are approved with next year's budget, Racine Police Chief Art Howell said he hopes to have the technology and policy in place so they can have cameras out on patrol within the first quarter of 2019.

Long time coming

According to a timeline provided by RPD, the department first formed a committee to look into body cameras in June 2015. In an memo to Howell from July of that year, the committee members laid out the pros and cons for implementing body cameras.

"The reasons to do it outweighed the reasons not to do it," said Howell.

The department product-tested one model in November 2016. Due to technological shortcomings, RPD decided not to move forward then.

"The first generation of cameras that came out were not really perfected — a lot of problems," said Howell. "One of the largest problems was that when the officers would get involved in foot pursuits, the unit would fall off because they were clip-on."

That model was unreliable, bulky and had a short battery life, he said.

In May 2017, Panasonic announced its third generation body camera, the Arbitrator MK3. Near the end of the year RPD started product-testing that model, which is the one eventually chosen.

Then, about eight months later, on Jan. 17, 2018 Donte Shannon was fatally shot by Investigator Chad Stillman and Officer Peter Boeck. In March, after an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson decided not to press charges against Stillman and Boeck for Shannon's death.

The incident prompted members of the community, including George Nicks, president of the Racine Branch of the NAACP, to ask why body cameras weren't being used.

"The public has been asking this public-safety question since that event, but the Police Department has been doing the ground work for it for a long time," said Mason.

Howell said that at this point the two biggest obstacles to getting the cameras in place (aside from funding) have been working out data storage and the departmental policies on body cameras.

For storage, the department has chosen to use a local server instead of cloud storage.

"(Cloud storage) can be extremely expensive. We opted to do it on a local level where we have our own server," said Howell. "And as a result of that we'll be able to save the city a significant amount of money."

Docking stations at the Police Department would charge camera batteries and upload footage onto the server.

Policy in progress

If funding for the initiative comes through, the biggest hurdle left will be developing a policy for recording, storing and sharing footage.

Mason, who as a former legislator has been involved in the body-camera discussion on the state level, said developing a policy that balances departmental transparency and individual privacy is more complicated than many people think.

"The state's been wrestling with the policy issues around this for several years," said Mason. "I think it's taken some time without a clear policy in place. Local jurisdictions have been left to come up with best practices on their own."

Deputy Chief Charles Weitzel, who heads the committee overseeing body camera implementation, said a draft policy has been written up and he is working with the City Attorney's Office to finalize it. So far, the draft policy states:

Officers are required to turn on cameras before any event during which they may have to act in an enforcement capacity. Cameras are capable of capturing footage up to one minute before the officer turns them on.

General footage storage is still being debated, but the minimum would be 30 days.

Footage related to an infraction that could lead to a citation or charges against an individual would be retained for the life of the appeals process for that case.

Videos for public release can be redacted and edited to protect an individual's privacy. However, RPD will have a copy of the full, untouched video on its server.

As for when footage would be shared with the public, Howell said that, should a situation arise, he would push to expedite that process should it serve the public interest.

"It's a trust issue," said Howell. "They have to trust us and if knowing facts that would change the course of how the community is going to receive it, we should get that (information) out as soon as possible."

If the city council approves the funds for all of the equipment, the department could go forward with a pilot program as early as December.

Weitzel said that should no issues arise during the pilot period, every officer, including investigators, supervisors and shift commanders, will be issued his or her own body camera with spares available for all divisions. Howell hopes to have full implementation within the first quarter of 2019.

©2018 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.