The Public Safety Review Committee voted 4-2 on Wednesday to recommend that the City Council not pursue using police body-worn cameras either in a pilot program or a full deployment. The Equal Opportunities Commission echoed the review committee’s concerns Thursday, voting against the pilot program 8-2.
A report presented by the Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee recommended implementing a “rigorous pilot project” before fully assessing the impact that body cameras would have if implemented on a department-wide level. The report held that body-worn cameras would advance Madison’s reform agenda, increasing transparency and accountability.
Currently, only the city’s SWAT team uses body cameras.
Several committee members voiced their concerns with the implementation of a body camera program and alleged that the report failed to comprehensively assess the impacts that body cameras would have on the local community.
“I was not persuaded by the pros or the cons,” Police Civilian Oversight Committee member Mary Anglim said. “I do think Members of the Public Safety Review Committee concluded that the report was biased in some of its arguments, and not nearly conclusive enough overall to warrant a pilot program, that the committee worked through all that evidence and then said, ‘well, we can’t tell, so let’s do a pilot of our own.’”
Brain Benford, a candidate for the District 6 alder seat, reflected on a loss of trust between the community and police, and the high cost of maintaining the cameras over time.
“Technology will not put us on a path to social justice, equity and safety, especially if it’s robbing us of much-needed funds to address our neighbors’ basic needs,” he stated.
Residents have spoken both in support and opposition to the report, highlighting the complex, sometimes contradictory, roles of body-worn cameras. Supporters of body-worn cameras argue that the technology increases police accountability. Opponents worry about their cost, their role in expanding police surveillance and their use in prosecuting civilians.
Larissa Johanns, a resident and member of the Reshaping Madison Together Coalition, spoke in opposition to body cameras. “Every day, a Black or Brown body gets murdered. Every day, body cameras are not bringing justice. George Floyd was one of those people,” she pointed out.
Beth Falkos, a Madison resident, registered in support. “The committee did a thorough and fair job of assessing the research and writing this report,” she said. “The time and dedication of this committee with a simple acceptance of the report, not political maneuvering to shelve it.”
Gregory Gelembiuk, a former member of the Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee, spoke critically of the report’s findings at both the Public Safety Review Committee and the Equal Opportunities Commission. Gelembiuk shared that he was once in favor of body cameras, before he did additional research into their functions and usage.
“My perception early on [was] that the general group would have a hard time confronting their biases about body cams, particularly the early impressions that folks had that body cams are good for police accountability,” he noted. “It seemed that was a lot of twisting and turning to end at a predetermined conclusion that Madison should adopt body cams.”
Gelembiuk went on to describe additional “cons” of body-worn cameras not mentioned in the report, including increased prosecution of low-level offenses and dispositional bias, meaning that people will be unable to objectively view video captured by cameras.
Following the Public Safety Review Committee’s Wednesday vote, Chief Shon Barnes released a statement Thursday morning affirming his support of body cameras.
“I want to be as transparent as possible, and I fully support the body-worn camera pilot and full implementation of this technology,” Barns stated. “Our community deserves the full benefit of having a progressive police department, grounded in best practices.”
While the future of Madison’s body-worn camera program remains uncertain, funding would not be an issue — $83,000 has already been allocated for the body camera pilot program as part of Madison’s 2021 budget.
That funding will remain dependent on a future vote from the Common Council.
Addison Lathers is the Editor in Chief of The Daily Cardinal. She has covered city and campus news and held two editor positions. Follow her on Twitter at @addisonlathers.