April 7, 2020 – Police body camera footage and other video footage is among the evidence introduced at the ongoing trial against former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, accused of homicide in the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Police body camera footage is increasingly used as evidence in criminal cases, as more law enforcement agencies are using them nationwide, including in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice recently reported that three-fourths of police agencies surveyed in Wisconsin are using police-worn body cameras.
“Police body cams have become an increasingly popular tool with the public, with the police and with reformers,” said U.W. Law Professor Keith Findley, co-chair of the Police Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee, established by the City of Madison, which also released a final report with a model policy for law enforcement.
“The idea is in part, to build off the ubiquity of using video cameras that we see in everyday life now, and the way we recognize that it can capture and record and preserve data that otherwise might be lost,” said Prof. Findley.
Findley said police have generally endorsed body-worn cameras as a way to help protect them from false allegations or to help them build cases.
Reformers, on the other hand, have looked to police body cams as a tool for changing police behavior, police community relations, and police accountability “in this era in which we are bombardedwith images on a regular basis of policeengaging inviolent behavior, often fatal shootings typically involving black and brown men.”
“So it is something that the community is looking to in a lot of respects to help us essentially preserve and restore and record evidence of a better quality than we've had in the past for a wide range of purposes,” Prof. Findley explained.
However, Findley says the social science research on the use of body cameras is a little bit mixed “and suggests that some of the hopes that people have for body worn cameras are overblown, that they are no panacea.”
“But there remains the possibility that if used appropriately under correct policies, procedures, and preconditions, they might have some of the beneficial effects that people are hoping for,” he said. “The jury is still out on the ultimate effects.”
The Police Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee recommended that the City of Madison implement a police body camera pilot project with model policies and procedures. Findley says the committee’s work recognizes body cams are just one tool.
“They can't solve any problems by themselves,” Findley said. “They are a tool and whether they will have a positive or negative effect will depend in large measure on how that tool is used.”
“We also learned that from the social science research that it's probably not realistic to expect body worn cameras to have much if any effect on the rate at which police officers employ force,” he said. “There are too many other factors that go into that.”
But potential exists for increasing accountability, transparency, trust, and better evidence for use in criminal proceedings by prosecutors and the defense.
Findley says the committee’s work on this issue, with model policies and recommendations, can serve as a guide for Madison and other communities as they implement or consider implementing the use of police-worn body cameras.
“One of the big takeaways we've seen from most of the policing scholars is that if you're going to go down the path of adopting body worn cameras, you can't just do it and then figure out what to do with the cameras afterwards,” Findley said. “You need to plan it out carefully in advance so you understand the strengths and weaknesses.”
As suggested and discussed in the report, Findley said policies must govern the use of the cameras and the access to the footage in ways that are deliberate, controlled, and designed to enhance benefits and minimize negative consequences.
Whatever the ultimate decision on body worn cameras, he said, communities must engage in this kind of in-depth scrutiny to make sure it’s done right. “Because if you're not doing it the right way, body cameras probably are not a good idea,” Findley said.