Tag Archives: body cameras

Public’s trust was abused over police videos

On Aug. 14, after a night of unrest prompted by the fatal police shooting of a black man, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said his review of body camera video of the incident proved the officer had acted appropriately.

“The individual did turn toward the officer with a firearm in his hand,” Flynn stated, later saying the man, 23-year-old Sylville Smith, “was raising up with” the gun.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said a still photo he was shown from the video “demonstrates, without question, that (Smith) had a gun in his hand.” In fact, Barrett declared, the officer “ordered that individual to drop his gun, the individual did not drop his gun.”

This purportedly exculpatory video itself was not promptly released, despite requests from Barrett and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that this occur. It still has not been released. But we know now that public officials did not give an accurate account of what it shows.

Bill Lueders, Your Right to Know columnist
Bill Lueders, Your Right to Know columnist

We know that because, in mid-December, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm filed criminal charges against Dominique Heaggan-Brown, the former Milwaukee police officer who killed Smith. (Heaggan-Brown was fired over an alleged sexual assault shortly after the shooting.)

According to the criminal complaint charging the officer with first-degree reckless homicide, Smith held a gun as the officer fired his first shot. Smith, struck in the arm, pitched the gun over a fence and fell to the ground. The officer then fired a second, fatal shot to Smith’s chest.

“A review of the body camera video from (both officers at the scene) confirms that at the time of the second shot, Smith was unarmed and had his hands near his head,” the complaint says.

A 2014 state law governing investigations of police shootings requires that gathered materials be released if a decision is made not to file charges. The law is otherwise silent as to whether and when these materials are released.

Barrett has renewed his call for release, while Flynn has weighed in against this. Chisholm told me his office will not release this evidence prior to its use in a criminal proceeding.

In this case, I believe, it is already too late to restore confidence in the integrity of the process. Flynn’s representations about the video were at best misleading, and Barrett’s statements suggest he was misled, as was the public.

The whole point of outfitting police with cameras, at taxpayer expense, is to ensure truthfulness and enhance accountability. That did not happen here. And many more months may pass before the video is released.

Other jurisdictions have more enlightened policies. In Chicago, for instance, videos of police shootings are normally released within 60 days, and posted online.

In the legislative session that begins in January, there will likely be renewed efforts to establish consistent state policies regarding police body cameras; a bill to do so in the last session went nowhere.

Now is the time, in the wake of this regrettable case, for the citizens of Wisconsin to insist that the video records they are paying for are not kept secret, or used to mislead them.

Killing of Alton Sterling exposes limits of body cameras

Civil liberties advocates said they expected the failure of body cameras worn by two Baton Rouge police officers when they shot dead a black man to be part of a federal investigation into the latest U.S. shooting to spark protests over the use of excessive force by police.

The cameras, intended as a major deterrent to police shootings because of the documentation they could provide, were knocked out of position during the altercation with 37-year-old Alton Sterling resulting in poor-quality video, police revealed on Wednesday.

Alton Sterling, who was shot dead by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. on July 5, 2016, is seen in an undated photo posted on his Facebook account. Alton Sterling via Social Media/Handout via Reuters
Alton Sterling, who was shot dead by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. on July 5, 2016, is seen in an undated photo posted on his Facebook account. Alton Sterling via Social Media/Handout via Reuters

Police officials did not say which company made the cameras worn by the officers who killed Sterling, where they were located on their uniforms or how they were knocked loose, but civil rights advocates said they expected a U.S. Department of Justice investigation to answer those questions.

“How could that possibly happen?” asked Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana in a telephone interview on Wednesday, a day after the shooting. “I assume the Justice Department is going to look at absolutely everything, which would have to include what happened with the cameras.”

Baton Rouge is transitioning from using cameras made by L-3 Communications Holdings Inc <LLL.N> to those made by Taser International Inc <TASR.O>, according to Taser and local media reports. A Taser spokesman said his company’s cameras were not involved in the incident and an L-3 spokesman declined to comment.

Baton Rouge police officials did not respond to a request for further comment.

Law enforcement experts said it was rare for such cameras to fail but not unheard of in a case where an officer is wrestling with someone.

Taser’s body-worn cameras are secured with high-powered magnets and require the user to hold a power button down for five seconds to turn them off, a design intended to discourage officers from turning them off during confrontations.

Over the past year police departments in major U.S. cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore have begun equipping their officers with body cameras or seeking funding for them.

Some 95 percent of police departments intend to adopt them, according to a December survey conducted jointly by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs Association.

“Body cameras are a step forward in most people’s minds, but they are not the silver bullet that people believe they might be,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “I can see that people might be skeptical of that but those things happen.”

Abdullah Muflahi, owner of the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S., is pictured in his store July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kathy Finn
Abdullah Muflahi, owner of the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S., is pictured in his store July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kathy Finn

Body cameras tape only 1 of 4 fatal cop shootings

Only one of the four fatal shooting involving police in Charlotte, North Carolina, were captured by body cameras since the force bought them for officers eight months ago.

The city spent $7.2 million to buy about 1,400 of the lipstick-sized cameras for each of its patrol officers starting in September.

But the cameras were not given to SWAT officers or members of tactical units who apprehend violent criminals.

Civil rights advocates like Susanna Birdsong, the policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, say that needs to be addressed to keep officers accountable.

“I think that they should be without question outfitted with body cameras. The need for transparency and accountability is heightened because there’s a risk that these encounters are going to be confrontational,” Birdsong told The Charlotte Observer.

But Charlotte’s force only has a limited amount of money, and Police Chief Kerr Putney has decided he would rather put more officers on the streets than get cameras for detectives and members of the force’s tactical units, said police Maj. Stephen Willis, who helped create the city’s body camera program.

“The $7.2 million we asked city council for was a large chunk of change,” Willis said. “We wanted to put the money where the work was being done, and that was in patrol.”

The department has not determined how much it would cost to put all its officers in body cameras and would not say how many officers are on SWAT and tactical teams, saying it could threaten their safety.

Requiring tactical units to wear body cameras could also jeopardize how they do their job. While body camera footage is not available under public records law, it is required to be given to people arrested and their lawyers. That footage could show police tactics, Willis said.

Officers involved in tactical units were involved in two fatal shootings by Charlotte police since September. An off duty officer providing security at a mall on Christmas Eve without wearing a camera killed a third person, and the fourth shooting of a man who witnesses said fired dozens of shots at police and taunted them was captured on a body camera.

GOP candidates are normalizing racism

This year is ending as it began, with unarmed black citizens being slaughtered in the streets by police officers in situations where the use of deadly force is wholly unwarranted. 

Various studies show that blacks are 2 to 3.5 percent more likely than whites to be killed by police, and a number of studies say African-American victims are twice as likely to be unarmed.

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump is milking the police killings to promote the myth that blacks are responsible for 81 percent of white murders. Never mind that whites kill 82.4 percent of white victims and blacks kill 90 percent of black victims. Never mind that the vast majority of murder victims are killed by someone they know or who lives nearby.

Trump and other Republican presidential contenders are not interested in the facts, but rather in exploiting racist Americans to get their votes. They offer followers the comforting lie that every unarmed black man killed by police gets what he deserves — that the man with the badge is always right and the man with the dark skin is always wrong. They’re promoting a kind of racist McCarthyism in which protesters and sympathizers of Black Lives Matters are un-American.

Recently, Trump and his supporters showed their true feelings when a black protester was punched, stomped and kicked at a campaign rally in Alabama. Unfazed by the violence, Trump hollered, “Get him out of here.” He later told an interviewer the protester got what he deserved.

The recently released video from the Chicago Police Department failed to make a dent in the position held by Trump and his supporters. In it, cameras show officer Jason Van Dyke driving his squad car up to 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and, within seconds, shooting him 16 times. McDonald, who held a small knife, never even approached Van Dyke. About a dozen officers surrounded the teen. Van Dyke’s life was never remotely in danger.

Right-wing commentators and GOP presidential candidates dismissed the video either as having been misleadingly edited or an anomaly.

Running for the highest office in the land brings with it great responsibility. Even before they’re nominated or elected, presidential candidates are in the spotlight. Their words are widely exposed and influential.

Several among this year’s bumper crop of GOP candidates have used the limelight to promote racial and ethnic divisions — the old divide-and-conquer technique, as Scott Walker has referred to it. Rather than illuminating one of our society’s most disabling problems, they’re helping to fuel it. What might this nation become if one of these candidates, lacking in both knowledge and dignity, ended up behind the country’s most visible “bully pulpit.” 

Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and others have tapped into the frustration that bigots have endured under the rise of “political correctness.” The left has successfully made it socially unacceptable to stomp about spewing words of hatred toward blacks, Mexicans, women, Muslims, gays and others. For the haters, The Donald is a liberator, because he refuses to abide by these new rules of civil discourse. His followers view him as honest and courageous, even though he’s spouting the same laugh lines that brought high ratings to the fictional Archie Bunker, the hot-head bigot on the 1970s TV smash All in the Family.

A large part of Trump’s allure is he gives permission for racists to unleash ugly feelings that have been socially unacceptable for at least two decades. But the inevitable effect of condoning racism will be to enlarge it. 

The Republican Party is leading us back to a future of Jim Crow voting laws and public lynchings. People of sound mind and goodwill must counter this pox on our society with everything we can muster or else watch our social fabric tear and unravel. That would ultimately destroy all of us — including the racists.

Coalition for Justice, Mothers for Justice announce upcoming events

The Coalition for Justice and the Mothers for Justice United invite supporters of social justice to attend a listening session this evening about the Milwaukee Police Department’s proposal to equip officers with body-worn cameras. The event, hosted by the Fire and Police Commission, begins at the Hillside Family Resource Center, 1452 N. Seventh St. in Milwaukee.

From now until Oct. 31, the two groups are also collecting adult and children hats, gloves and mittens for people who can’t afford them.  Donations can be dropped off during a fundraising bake sale from 11 am. To 3 p.m. on Sat., Oct. 3, outside All Peoples Church, 2600 N. Second St. in Milwaukee.

The Mothers for Justice is also selling tickets for a short documentary film about Maria Hamilton and other mothers whose sons were killed by police officers in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Film Festival is screening the film as part of a program of short films, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave. Tickets are available at the theater or here.

Mayor Barrett wants to equip all MPD officers on the street with body cameras by end of 2016

All Milwaukee police officers on the street would be wearing body cameras by the end of 2016 under a proposal announced July 30 by Mayor Tom Barrett.

The proposal, first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (http://bit.ly/1JqBjAX ), comes after tense episodes between police and Milwaukee’s African-American community and fatal shootings by police in Ferguson, Missouri; Cleveland; and North Charleston, South Carolina, that sparked discussion nationwide about race and policing. Last year, 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton was fatally shot by a Milwaukee police officer in a downtown park.

According to Barrett’s preliminary budget, body cameras for 1,200 Milwaukee street officers — including storage of video information — would cost $880,000 in 2016 and about $1 million a year beginning in 2017.

The estimated cost is about what it would cost to add 12 officers to the department’s ranks of 1,880 sworn officers, Barrett told the newspaper.

“The question is: Is it worth 12 officers?” the mayor asked. “That’s a legitimate public policy debate.”

He added: “I embrace it wholeheartedly, both from a fiscal standpoint and from a policy standpoint.”

Both Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and the president of the Milwaukee Police Association, Mike Crivello, support the initiative.

“If that’s OK with (citizens), it’s sure OK with us because, from the average officer’s point of view, it’s going to overwhelmingly put in context what they’re dealing with, what they try to do and what actually happens,” Flynn said at Marquette University last week.

“We’re looking forward to getting them,” he said.

Appearing with the mayor on July 30, Flynn said Milwaukee police officers will have discretion to turn off the cameras for certain sensitive calls as part of a new department policy on use of the devices.

“This is new territory for American citizens as well as for police departments, and balancing a reasonable expectation of privacy when you summon the police department to deal with a family crisis has to be balanced with our need to be accountable and transparent,” Flynn said.

Crivello said there is “no doubt” the cameras “will absolutely depict the professionalism that our officers display on a daily basis.”

If Barrett’s proposal is approved, Milwaukee would join a growing number of police departments nationwide that are considering the use of body cameras or already outfitting some officers.

Attorney Robin Shellow represents some of the more than 60 people who have filed civil rights lawsuits against the City of Milwaukee and the Police Department alleging improper strip and cavity searches. While Shellow said she supports body cameras for police, she thinks more needs to be done.

“Yes, I believe in body cameras, but more importantly I think we should have police officers with college educations,” Shellow said. “I think that would do a lot more to reduce unconstitutional interactions.”

Illinois House approves statewide rules for police body cameras

Illinois could soon establish statewide rules for the use of police body cameras, but the proposed legislation would not require officers to have the devices.

A package of police reforms passed the Illinois House on May 28 with a 107-3 vote and was headed back to a Senate committee.

Supporters of the bipartisan package say it is designed to help improve relations between police departments and the community.

Many of the ideas in it came in response to killings by police in Ferguson, Missouri., and elsewhere. Backers of the Illinois measure said the state would be the first in the country to implement statewide rules for police body cameras.

However, the cameras aren’t seen by all as a magic solution for solving difficulties between law enforcement and the public.

“These cameras will not be the panacea that many people think they will,” said Sean Smoot, director of the Police Benevolent and Protective Association of Illinois. “They’re not going to be the Pandora’s box that officers fear.”

Smoot serves on President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which recently released a report featuring several recommendations that were incorporated into the Illinois measure.

The body cameras run all the time, but officers have to push a button to start recording. Videos would not be subject to viewing by the public except in notable cases, according to the measure, which also mandates how long the videos would be kept and when the camera needs to be turned on or off.

The proposal also prohibits police from using chokeholds, except when deadly force is justified.

Last year, a grand jury decided not to indict a New York City officer who used a prohibited chokehold in the death of Eric Garner.

Other reforms include requiring independent review of officer-involved deaths and annual training for officers. It also clarifies the state’s eavesdropping law.

Milwaukee committee to discuss body cameras for police

The Milwaukee Public Safety Committee may take up the issue of body-worn cameras for the Milwaukee Police Department and the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin is weighing in on the issue.

The city committee could consider the issue as early as Oct. 2.

In mid-September, Police Chief Edward Flynn indicated that MPD wanted to move forward with a pilot program to test body cameras, with the use of 50 cameras. Flynn, according to an ACLU announcement, suggested that policies “would be rolled out over time.”

In a letter this week to Ald. Terry L. Witkowski, ACLU of Wisconsin executive director Christopher Ahmuty said such equipment, when used properly, has a role in increasing police accountability.

However, Ahmuty said, the civil liberties group has two suggestions for city officials:

• MPD should be encouraged to develop protocols for the pilot program and for standard operating procedures that take into account “serious privacy considerations affecting both police officers and subjects. Privacy can be protected without significantly diminishing the potential body-worn cameras hold for enhancing police accountability.”

• The MPD should conduct its pilot program in “a timely fashion and move to deploy more than 50 body-worn cameras (and adequately train substantial numbers of officers in their use) within a year. The pilot should determine which system, cameras and policies best suit the MPD and emerging best practices.”

Ahmuty added, “In my opinion, the MPD is budgeting too much for data storage. The ACLU-WI will urge the Finance and Personnel Committee to move more funds from data storage to body-worn cameras.”

The letter continued, “Robust police accountability improves police community relations. Good police community relations are essential if we are to work together to make our neighborhoods safe. Body-worn cameras should be used to enhance police accountability. They must not be used for surveillance. The data collected by body-worn cameras (and MDVRs as well) should not be used alone or matched with other databases for forensic purposes unless there is a warrant. It should also not be analyzed in a way that impinges on the First Amendment, associational and free speech, rights of law abiding Americans, such as anti-abortion demonstrators, politicians, or demonstrators protesting police misconduct. 

“The ACLU-WI believes that body-worn cameras have an important role to play in increasing police accountability. However, as with any law enforcement technology, we cannot let human values and civil liberties become subservient to the technology. We should put the technology to work for us. You and your committee have an important oversight role to play. We urge you to thoroughly review this complicated issue to make sure that the residents of Milwaukee will benefit from this expenditure.”

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Body cameras proposed for MPD officers

In the wake of a string of high-profile shootings of black men by police, Ald. Tony Zielinski is urging Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to include the cost of outfitting MPD officers with body cameras in his next budget, which will be introduced this month.

An increasing number of police departments around the nation, including in Ferguson, Missouri, are now outfitting officer uniforms with video cameras to record interactions with the public as well as suspects in criminal matters. 

A year-long study conducted by the Police Foundation found 50 percent fewer incidents involving use of force and nearly 10 times fewer citizens’ complaints after Rialto, California, officers used cameras during their patrol shifts. 

“These cameras are a win-win situation,” Zielinski said. “They’re a win for citizens and taxpayers. If you look at this incident with the shooting (of Dontre Hamilton) at Red Arrow Park, if there had been a body camera, we wouldn’t be spending all this money on an investigation. If a police officer goes to someone’s house and says, ‘I’ve got a camera on,’ the perpetrator is much less likely to engage in disruptive behavior requiring the use of force.”

Cameras would also put the public more at ease in working with police, Zielinski added.

Both Barrett and MPD Chief Edward Flynn have said they are open to the strategy — as have the majority of other aldermen, Zielinski said. He said plans are underway to start a pilot program using about 50 cameras.

Details of that pilot program had yet to be announced as WiG headed to press. “The devil’s going to be in ironing out the details — when you turn it on, when you turn it off, and so on,” Zielinski said.

He added that he only would back a resolution to adopt police cameras if it contained the stipulation of purchasing American-made equipment.

An online petition calling on MPD to outfit its force with wearable cameras claims that the city ranks among the top five nationally for police misconduct. 

Nearly 2,200 people have signed the change.org petition, which calls on Barrett to designate city dollars for the cameras.