Body Cameras: The Big Picture

by Dan Fitch

Madison is considering a wider pilot of body-worn cameras (BWCs) for police, with eventual plans to roll them out city-wide. The state attorney general just publicized a report about dash cams and body cameras which treats them as an unalloyed good that should spread across the entire state. But should we sprinkle body-worn cameras liberally over the Madison Police Department? This is an expensive experiment, with some large assumptions about the helpfulness of body-worn cameras.

Building on the earlier work of the Police Department Policy and Procedure Ad-Hoc committee, the Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee (or BWCFRC, it simply rolls off the tongue…) has worked to produce a report that the city council would use to determine next actions. However, that committee lost some of its contrarian voices over time. And it lost another strong voice on January 15th.

In November, Red Madison discussed how the consensus in academia has slowly flipped from “body cams are probably good” to “body cams are likely bad.” Dr. Gregory Gelembiuk’s own views have followed this slow evolution: when he got involved in all this back in 2015, he saw body cameras as a way to help communities hold police accountable, such as in the police shootings of his neighbor Paul Heenan and later, Tony Robinson. Dr. Gelembiuk was one of the voices who really pushed for investigating body-worn cameras at the time.

Gradually, as Dr. Gelembiuk read the literature, he realized that study after study was showing adverse effects from body-worn cameras. They were, unfortunately, not the promised panacea. A recent meta‐analysis found that BWCs produce “few clear or consistent impacts on police or citizen behaviors,” and does not cause a clear reduction in use of force, in some cases exacerbating it. As Red Madison has shared before, we can look to jurisdictions where BWCs are already in use to see how they are used. In one survey, 93% of prosecutors reported using video evidence in cases against civilian suspects. Only 8% of those same prosecutors used body camera video as evidence to prosecute police.

Dr. Gelembiuk felt that the current committee report, as initially drafted by Keith Finley working alone in mid-December, was missing much of the current conflicting academic context. Unable to see a path to fixing the report, Dr. Gelembiuk resigned from the committee during the January 15th meeting, in protest.

In one survey, 93% of prosecutors reported using video evidence in cases against civilian suspects. Only 8% of those same prosecutors used body camera video as evidence to prosecute police.

In the January 19th meeting of the BWCFRC, you can see many of Dr. Gelembiuk’s suggested edits and comments scroll by like orange ghosts [as “Patron”] while committee members pore over the draft report. Towards the end of the meeting, Keith Finley says, “We’re putting this all in here because it’s important to the ultimate decision. So, let’s all take it into account. […] What is the bottom line? Where do we want to be?” 

And that is the big question. Is Dr. Gelembiuk’s contrarian feedback well represented in the final report? Will anyone pay attention to the nuances of this issue?

Dr. Gelembiuk says that, while he thinks everyone on the committee has good intentions, many of them are blinded by confirmation bias. He believes this has led them to create and edit the report in a way which elides many of the negative aspects of body cameras, puffs up their positives, and is not scientifically rigorous. He took pains to point out that in some cases the report relies on secondary sources which misconstrued the primary study’s results, and even got the important parts completely backwards. (For much more detail on all this, see his letter to the council.)

In their January 22nd meeting, although edits on the report were still incomplete, the committee ended up voting 5-1 on a motion to recommend that the city commit to a body camera pilot project, pursuant to all provisions of their “Report and Model Policy”. (Veronica Figueroa Velez was the one “nay” vote.) There were a few more meetings, and then on February 2nd, the City Council accepted the final report, which you can view along with Dr. Gelembiuk’s letter to the Council on Legistar. The report will now be bounced to the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Public Safety Review Committee before the full council makes a decision.

We need to keep asking: who will new policies, including the use of body cameras, harm and help? If they won’t actually aid our most marginalized communities, why do we keep considering them?

The simple summary is that body-worn cameras likely cause more harm than their proponents expect. And as Dr. Gelembiuk notes in his letter, they may cost more than expected, as well: he estimates a total cost (including hours for administrative tasks) at $23 million over 5 years. We should invest this money elsewhere: for example, to help make the emergency mental health response team pilot this spring a full 24/7 operation instead of running only during business hours. It remains to be seen if alders will have the energy to dig below the surface of this report to make this kind of decision.

We need to keep asking: who will new policies, including the use of body cameras, harm and help? If they won’t actually aid our most marginalized communities, why do we keep considering them? If our committee volunteers find evidence that people on all sides will possibly be harmed, why do we want to spend the money? Is it simply a gesture to make us feel better, or can we find a better path for our community?

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