City News

In front of the lens: After surveillance assists in swift arrest, the practice is at the forefront

After surveillance cameras were vital in the arrest of a suspect in a sexual assault case, MPD chief Mike Koval emphasized that the practice should grow.

Image By: Van Hai Van

In the early morning of April 7, a woman walking down East Washington Avenue was sexually assaulted by a man she didn’t know.

The police had few details — a car pulled into where the crime was occurring and the attacker fled. Immediately, investigators began a meticulous process of sifting through the city’s many public surveillance cameras to try and identify a person of interest.

First, one camera identified a car following the woman home. Then, a second camera identified the same vehicle in a Capitol-area parking lot, the footage of which included a license plate number. What followed was a swift cascade of events that included learning the suspect’s name, matching DNA left at the scene with information already obtained by the Wisconsin Crime Lab and apprehending the individual.

At a press conference announcing the arrest, MPD chief Mike Koval praised the surveillance technology.

“We’ve had the benefit of surveillance cameras that are out in public spaces are only looking at public spaces and they have been extremely instrumental to our ability to the jobs in this current contemporary form of policing,” he said.

Koval added that there should be more cameras in high-density areas. As it stands, there are

approximately 875 cameras in Madison.

The conversation about the use of public cameras is not new; however, as additional cameras are considered, the city has expanded its dialogue. Mayor Paul Soglin has established a work group while the Common Council has a five-member task force that’s assessing the practice.

The council specifically is working to establish a concrete policy for the use of surveillance cameras and hear from city departments about how, if it at all, they use surveillance.

In their current draft, surveillance technology includes “technology whose primary purpose is to observe or analyze the movements, behavior, or actions of identifiable individuals in a manner to raise concerns about civil liberties, freedom of speech or association, racial equity or social justice.”

Ald. Ledell Zellers, District 2, sponsored additional dollars in the last budget to add 18 cameras into the downtown area. She is also a member of the council’s task force.

“I think that this recent situation, really supports the benefits of having them,” she said. “There was a stranger assault last year too and cameras again were pivotal.”

Zellers said her main concern is the possibility of cameras looking into people’s living areas. Koval said the police department does not and will not use the technology to be voyeuristic.

“I’m not saying at all that I think people are misusing them but as we all know, standard operating procedures or rules or protocols aren’t always followed by everybody,” said Zeller, adding that she just wants to minimize instances of misuse.

She says that for the most part, her constituents are supportive of the cameras for safety reasons. Deputy Mayor Enis Ragland says the mayor hasn’t heard of many concerns but that it’s important to assess the policy.

“It’s always good to look at your policy and update it everyone so often,” he said. “And I know we haven’t looked at our policies in a while.”

As it stands for the police department, any camera available is at their disposal.

“There’s a plethora of cameras out there and we utilize any and all of them when we have a crime to solve,” said public information officer Joel DeSpain. He added that the department has identified areas where more cameras would be necessary.

“We’ve emphasized to the mayor that there are key areas of the city where we haven’t had adequate surveillance cameras,” he said.

Zellers said that as it pertains to public knowledge, surveillance cameras don’t need a “great, big publicity campaign,” as their locations are often obvious.

Moving forward, Ragland said that the city is working to adapt and that they don’t intend on using surveillance just for the sake of it.

“We want to be rational and responsible in how we use technology,” he said.

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