Public expresses concerns about police use of cameras at Fire and Police Commission hearing

October 8, 2015
By Steve Waring
Special to The Milwaukee Times
fire police

L. Gibson                                                                     Sgt. Doug Wiorek

Most of the estimated 50 members of the public who spoke following a demonstration of the new police body camera system before a Fire and Police Commission (FPC) hearing on September 29 expressed gratitude that the city budget included funding for the system; but trust in the proposed draft operating procedure that the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) has created was harder to find at the meeting. Many speakers expressed concerns about three issues in particular that the cameras are to remain off unless activated by the officer on duty and the recorded data remains in the possession of the officer until the recording device is returned to the station at the end of the shift and the data downloaded. Sgt. Doug Wiorek, an IT specialist with the MPD, demonstrated the two head-mounted and one shoulder mounted models approved for use and then responded to questions from both the public and members of the FPC.

He said there were specific protocols for when a recording device had to be turned on and disciplinary consequences if an officer failed to use the device when engaging in an investigation or apprehension. Even though it would be both possible and permissible for officers to view recorded incidents on their devices before they were downloaded, they could not be tampered with, Sgt. Wiorek said. Under questioning from members of the FPC, police Inspector Mary Hoerig said that the batteries were capable of recording an entire shift, but police felt members of the public might be reluctant to speak with an officer if they knew they were being recorded.

“If the cameras can be on for eight hours, let it be on,” said a man who gave his name as L. Gibson. One of the FPC members was told film from cameras mounted on squad cars typically runs continuously. “Why is it that the dash cams are on continuously, but not the body cameras?” asked FPC Commissioner Marisabel Cabrera. “Why does the officer have the ability to view raw footage before it is uploaded?” Some video systems have the ability to upload film immediately to a secure server, but under the system chosen by the MPD video footage remains in the officer’s possession until the body camera is returned to the charging unit at the station. Sgt. Wiorek said that having the ability to view the raw footage could help an officer filling out an incident report.

The cameras will be worn on the head, attached to a pair of glasses or mounted on an officer’s shoulder. Chest cameras were rejected, according to Sgt. Wiorek, be cause video is often blocked in the event an officer aims a weapon at a suspect. The MPD will be purchasing a total of 1,200 body cameras, which is enough to ensure that every officer serving in the field has a personal device; however due to cost and training the cameras will be rolled out incrementally.

The estimated cost of the body cameras and video storage capabilities is $880,000 in 2016 and about $1 million a year beginning in 2017, according to preliminary figures in the proposed 2016 budget. The first 200 devices will become operational on a trial basis on October 12, Sgt. Wiorek said. The department will put another 300 into the field in March 2016 and 300 more in June. The last 400 will be operational by the end of July, according to Sgt. Wiorek. The FPC first has to approve their use and how they will be operated. The next meeting of the commission is October 15, 2015 at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall Room 301B.