MADISON (WKOW) – With Madison’s mayoral election fast approaching, two studies in the news have brought attention to an issue that divides the candidates: police body cameras, which (aside from S.W.A.T.) aren’t worn by officers in the Madison Police Department.
Last spring, a statewide study by the Wisconsin Professional Police Association found that 94% of people in Wisconsin support requiring law enforcement officers to wear cameras.
More recently, however, a national study from George Mason University found that cameras don’t change policing as much as many expect.
“I think that if you just ask people, ‘Do you think that police should have body cameras?’ it sounds like a really good thing up front,” said Satya Rhodes-Conway, a former Madison alder and current candidate for mayor. “But I don’t think that most people have thought about the cost, the questions around privacy, the data storage issue, and how the communities that are most policed feel about them.”
Incumbent Mayor Paul Soglin, however, feels that a pilot program for cameras on MPD officers should definitely happen.
“It’ll tell us specifically what happened in an incident, or at least it will give us a better idea, and it’ll help us in the future in terms of avoiding violent confrontations,” he said.
Rhodes-Conway is specifically concerned about privacy issues.
“There’s a lot of questions about, once the video is taken, what’s in the background and the people concerned in whatever the incident is,” she said. “In the absence of a strong policy, it’s discoverable under open records laws.”
Rhodes-Conway said this could be particularly complicated when it comes to sensitive crimes like domestic violence – a point that Soglin agreed on. However, Soglin said that outside of those sensitive crimes, giving up privacy for safety is something that we should be used to in the 21st century.
“The moment we step out into the street, we are in fact vulnerable to being recorded, and being recorded against our will,” he said. “But certainly where you’re in a situation with a police officer, I don’t think in any way you can say that’s an invasion of privacy.”
Assistant Police Chief Paige Valenta said that police officers are watching the debate closely and are awaiting further research.
“I think the jury is still out on the benefits of body-warn cameras,” she said. “I think the police department is open to their use, but it can’t be a unilateral decision on the part of the police department.”