Ahead of body camera vote, Madison police chief believes he’s changed a few minds

MADISON, Wis. — Once again, Madison’s city council is set to vote on equipping its officers with body cameras–as part of a year-long pilot phase only for some officers on the city’s north side.

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City officials’ opposition to police body cameras dates back years, when the city overwhelmingly voted them down in 2015. Since then, a review of the police department launched in 2017 and completed in 2021 recommended the launch of a pilot program first rejected in 2015; another report launched after the protests in 2020 included body cameras in a number of recommendations for Madison police.

Police chief Shon Barnes has relentlessly advocated for body cameras as a core part of his platform after taking leadership of the agency in early 2021. Today, after a string of community events and meetings with organizations and city officials, he believes he’s been able to convince at least a couple alders to change their minds.

“I’ve spent time talking with alders, answering their questions, they’ve said ‘Have you thought about this, have you thought about that?’ and I really appreciate that,” he said. “Both the encouragement and the criticism, because what it does–it makes us sharper, makes me sharper, makes the department sharper.”

Have thoughts on the body camera pilot phase for MPD? Register your support or opposition ahead of Tuesday night’s council meeting here.

A 2018 study from the U.S. Department of Justice based on a 2016 survey found about 80% of large police agencies, Madison’s size and larger, used body cameras–a number that’s likely climbed since.

“After each of these incidents where we’ve seen police officers engage in conduct that quite frankly shocks our conscious, we see this rise in demand,” Barnes said.

Suburban police agencies surrounding Madison have them, as does UW-Madison campus police and Milwaukee police. A 2020 DOJ report found Madison was the largest city in the state not to have them.

Still, research is still inconclusive on some of their impact. Some studies cited by the National Institute of Justice find less use of force and fewer citizen complaints after implementation, while other studies found no substantial difference. In Madison, community organizations like Freedom, Inc. have long opposed them, advocating for defunding of police rather than further investments.

“We can implement and enact accountability based on this wrongdoing, not just another angle of watching somebody bleed out,” Freedom Inc. co-executive director M. Adams told News 3 Now in 2020.

RELATED: ‘The time is now’: Madison alders, police receive dozens of emails from community demanding body cameras

MPD’s 2021 capital budget included $83,000 to launch the body camera pilot phase, and has received some support from north side alderman and council president Syed Abbas.

Barnes, while confident, knows the issue isn’t yet laid to rest.

“Tomorrow, we’ll probably have some lively discussion.”