Skip to Content

Messy police body camera debate could come before Madison Common Council soon

Remaining Ad Time Ad - 00:00

MADISON (WKOW) -- Recommendations from a state task force are putting a renewed focus on the issue of police-worn body cameras in Madison.

The task force recommended body cameras for all law enforcement officers in Wisconsin. The panel was looking into ways to address racial disparities in policing. Among its 18 recommendations, the group said law enforcement agencies should ban most chokeholds, create an independent use of force review board, and equip all officers with body cameras.

But different Madison committees are coming to different conclusions.

"It turns out body-worn cameras are not as simple a matter as one would think at first," said Keith Findley, who spent half a year as co-chair of the Police Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee.

"We are increasingly an outlier," he said. "In this era of nearly ubiquitous video cameras, body-worn cameras are coming at some point. The absence of them will be too glaring."

Gregory Gelembiuk was on that committee, too -- but he's against body cameras.

"Body cams generate what are called perceptual biases," Gelembiuk said. "These perceptual biases tend to actually undercut accountability. They tend to make people judge the police officer more leniently than if it was a camera that was not on the officer, or than even a written report."

He says cameras can shake dramatically when the officers move, and they only show the officer's point of view.

"So the viewer gets the impression that the officer is under greater threat," Gelembiuk explained.

The Police Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee ultimately recommended Madison police use body cameras in a pilot trial, with several stipulations.

One of those stipulations was to include a disclosure any time footage is released, with a warning about that perceptual bias. The committee says the city should also periodically consult with experts to see how research on perceptual bias evolves.

The committee also recommends the Independent Police Monitor and Police Civilian Oversight Board have access to camera footage, and that the Dane County District Attorney's Office commit resources to make sure there isn't an increase in charging rates and criminalization in low-level offenses due to the cameras.

"Body-worn cameras need to be supported in the way that we have recommended in order to be successful," said committee member Luke Schieve.

"Body-worn cameras are not a panacea," he said. "That's something that you'll hear throughout the document. We found a lot of literature that really spoke to the pros and the cons of body-worn cameras. So it's not just a slam dunk in terms of being able to fix a number of the problems that they hope to fix, necessarily."

Gelembiuk did not support the committee's recommendation in favor of body cameras, and he took issue with how the committee interpreted some of its research data -- so he resigned before the report was released.

"Some people really want body cams, and out of the best of intentions, there can be a strong bias in that direction," he said.

He released a letter describing his concerns. The remaining members of the committee responded in a letter of their own.

"There's been an attempt to make the debate in the Common Council to be one about the integrity of the committee instead of about whether we can make body-worn cameras work in this community," Findley said. "It's a distraction. It's a sideshow. And I hope it's not something that will get a lot of traction, because that's all it is."

The committee's report went before two other committees -- the Public Safety Review Committee and the Equal Opportunities Committee. Both committees recommended against cameras.

Findley is standing by the Police Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee's recommendation.

"Our committee spent seven months studying this, we heard from 18, community groups, researched all the, all of the social science research, and met nearly 30 times. And I mean, really intensive work," Findley said. "Those committees looked at it for about an hour each maybe."

Soon, all of the recommendations will head to the full Common Council -- including to newly-elected Alder Charles Myadze.

"This is something that's well long overdue," he said.

Myadze was on the Police Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee prior to his election to the Common Council. He echoed what others on the committee said.

"The body-worn camera is not a panacea to solve all our challenges, but it definitely brings accountability while using it, like videos for training purposes to prevent future incidents," Myadze said.

He said the Common Council could take it up at its May 18th meeting, though an agenda has not yet been released. Myadze says he's hopeful it will pass -- and the evidence for body cameras' effectiveness is clear in recent high-profile police shootings.

"In Daunte Wright's situation, we wouldn't have ever known what happened if it wasn't for body cameras," he said.

Madison's police chief, Shon Barnes, has voiced support for body cameras as well.

In a statement to 27 News, Barnes said:

"I believe that progressive, 21st century police departments should have body-worn cameras.  Community trust-building begins with our department and community culture.  I want to be as transparent as possible, and I fully support a body worn camera pilot and full implementation of this technology.  Our community deserves the full benefit of having a progressive police department, grounded in best practices."

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

Skip to content