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Police Body Cams Face New Hurdle in Madison, Wis.

Months after the Madison City Council narrowly approved funding for a test run of police body cameras, the technology will again need approval before a 90-day pilot program can start late this spring or summer.

(TNS) — Nearly 10 months after the Madison City Council narrowly approved funding for a test run of police body cameras, the increasingly standard technology will again need approval before a 90-day pilot program can start late this spring or summer.

Police Chief Shon Barnes said he hopes to have officers in the city's North District outfitted with the cameras by June 1 or July 1. The department's SWAT team has used them for years. Motorcycle-riding patrol officers also have them, and squad cars are outfitted with dashboard and backseat cameras.

The most recent city committee to study body cameras, the Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee, voted in January 2021 in favor of their use — but with a raft of preconditions.

Among them were that the city and police "have made substantial and sustained progress" toward adopting 177 reforms recommended by an earlier city committee. Others seek to mitigate or limit the use of cameras if they are associated with an uptick in the number of people being charged with crimes.

Barnes said Monday that he personally wrote the policies for use of the cameras during the pilot project, and they have been under review by two assistant chiefs, including one who also has a law degree but recently retired. He said there are some recommendations from the Body-Worn Camera committee that are "not feasible to comply with" because they are not consistent with state law, including one allowing the city's newly hired independent police monitor's access to footage.

The policies have not yet been turned over to the city attorney's office, Barnes said. Once they are, that office will prepare its own report "as to whether the policies are consistent with the (BWC committee's) recommendations," city attorney Mike Haas said. The council would then have to vote that the policies are in "substantial compliance" with the committee's recommendations "before the pilot can be implemented," he said.

Barnes said that with recent turnover on the council and more to come with city elections this spring, he's not sure of where the council stands or will stand on body cameras, and he's not making any predictions about whether the pilot will move ahead or the cameras will be adopted more broadly.

"I will never be 100% confident that anything will happen in Madison without long and arduous debate," he said, but he said he was OK with that.

Long debate

City officials and activists have been debating whether to make body-worn cameras part of every officer's standard equipment since at least 2014, with proponents saying they increase police accountability and detractors — especially in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the videotaping of which sparked a national police-reform movement — saying money spent on police would be better spent on less-forceful responses to public disorder and addressing the root causes of crime.

As of 2016, about 47% of departments nationwide used the cameras, including 80% of departments with 500 or more sworn officers, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report. Madison is authorized for 492 sworn positions.

Support for the cameras has spanned ideological, racial and political boundaries. Former President Barack Obama's administration provided millions in grants for the cameras. Locally, the leader of the Urban League of Greater Madison s://" target="_blank">has joined Barnes — the city's third Black police chief — in supporting their adoption. The city's police union has also long supported them.

Today, "not having cameras could be costly," Barnes said.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, elected in 2019, has declined to take a position on the cameras, instead saying she wanted to wait for the results of various efforts to study their use over the years and, most recently, the planned pilot program. She did, however, include $83,000 in funding for the pilot in the city budget.

On the other side of the debate from Barnes and other camera backers are local activists including those from Freedom Inc. and City Council members including Juliana Bennett. They have pointed to questions about who would have access to the camera footage, called for more study and made demands on how the Dane County District Attorney's Office, over which the city has no control, would use evidence collected by the cameras.

Research has been mixed on whether the cameras help reduce police use of force and complaints against police, or increase trust between police and citizens.

© 2023 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.