Letter to MKE Common Council on Police Body Worn Cameras

Story Date: 
Sep 29, 2014

The following letter was sent to the Milwaukee Common Council regarding the Public Safety Committee Agenda Item on the Milwaukee Police Department's intent to pilot a program of using police officer body-worn cameras.


Re: File # 140926 body-worn cameras


Dear Alderman Witkowski,

You and your colleagues on the city’s Public Safety Committee on October 2 may consider a communication from the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) relating to body-worn cameras, File # 140926.

Body-worn cameras can enhance police accountability and deter police misconduct, such as the excessive use of force.  Council members and members of the public have encouraged the MPD to deploy body-worn cameras in a timely fashion.  The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin (ACLU-WI) agrees that body-worn cameras, when used properly, have a role in increasing police accountability.

At its September 18, 2014 regular meeting Chief Edward Flynn told the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners (FPC) that MPD was moving forward with a pilot program to test body cameras.  Fifty body cameras will be used.  The Chief suggested that relevant policies would be rolled out over time.  Mayor Barrett’s 2015 Budget Request includes $100,000 for the pilot program.  The MPD’s budget request for additional data storage, including for mobile digital video recorders,  is reduced from $500,000 to $400,000 in the Mayor’s budget proposal.

The ACLU-WI has two suggestions regarding File # 140926 and body-worn cameras. 

First, the Council and  the FPC should encourage the MPD to develop protocols for both the pilot and ultimately 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.   I have given Chief Flynn a whitepaper by Jay Stanley, ACLU Senior Policy Analyst, entitled Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win For All.  Please find a copy attached.

Second, the Council and the FPC should insist that the MPD 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.   The FPC at its September 18 meeting reduced the time that MDVRs record after events by nearly 50%.  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. 

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.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely yours,

Christopher Ahmuty, Executive Director, ACLU of Wisconsin