RACINE — Police Chief Art Howell gave a presentation Wednesday detailing the department’s body camera policy, which was met with many concerns from the public.
Community members said the Police Department’s policy for body-worn cameras falls short of expectations, with some asking that cameras remain on at all times during an officer’s shift and that consequences be clearly stated for an officer turning a camera off without authorization.
Howell gave the presentation on the policy to the City Council at its Wednesday meeting during which he discussed the equipment itself, storage of recorded material and issues of privacy for the general public. The department has been running a pilot program of the cameras since November and Howell told aldermen enough equipment had been purchased to roll out to program to the full force.
Sgt. Adam Malacara, the department’s public information officer, said 24 officers, 23 of whom are community oriented policing officers, are using the cameras as part of the pilot program. He did not have a timeline for full implementation.
The policy on when body cameras are worn is dated Feb. 27, 2019, with an additional policy about data storage dated Nov. 19, 2018.
When Howell opened the floor to questions from the council, Alderman Sandy Weidner of the 6th District requested that the floor also be opened to the general public as well. The motion was unanimously approved.
Many members of the public, which included community activists and families of people who have been shot and killed by law enforcement, stated concern that the policy is unclear as to whether or to what extent officers would be held accountable for noncompliance.
The Racine officers who shot Donte Shannon on Jan. 17, 2018 were not wearing body cameras, and afterward there were public demonstrations asking for Racine police to start wearing cameras.
It remains unclear if the Mount Pleasant police sergeant who shot Ty’Rese West on June 15 was wearing a body camera. Police have not answered that question or released any footage, despite numerous requests.
Alderman John Tate II of the 3rd District asked Howell what would happen if an officer did not record a situation that should have been recorded. Howell stated that he would examine “the totality of the circumstances,” such as the officer’s record, any complaints that may have been filed against them and whether they had a pattern of turning off their camera.
“Whether I’m solving a crime or looking whether an officer did something wrong, I’m looking at the totality of the circumstances,” said Howell. “If I can’t meet a certain standard then I can’t terminate an officer. I can assure you that I hold people accountable.”
For Cory Prince, social justice liaison for the Racine Branch of the NAACP, that wasn’t enough.
“We need to talk about policy that is going to be long-standing, long after Howell is gone, and (Mayor) Cory Mason is gone and the council is changed,” said Prince. “It’s not enough for me and I’m sure that its not enough for people in this community.”
Prince said when officers accused of misconduct are identified, he hears stories from community members about incidents that they were afraid to report. Prince asked that the policy be rewritten to, at the very least, state there would be consequences for noncompliance.
“My problem with that is often times community members do not report complaints against officers,” said Prince. “I don’t turn my body camera on and the only testing point is whether you have a record of being a bad officer or not.”
Al Gardner, a longtime community activist, said in the interest of transparency, there should be no exceptions for recording.
“(The camera should be on) as soon as that officer gets in that car and stays on until he gets off his shift,” said Gardner. “When you’re out in the street, on your job, that thing should be on.”
Howell said that would require, “an unattainable amount of storage.”
“If we had 200 people with this equipment on eight hours a day that would require several million dollars in storage,” said Howell.
Racine NAACP President George Nicks told The Journal Times after the meeting that when he was a bus driver, a colleague covered up the video camera inside the bus and was fired. Nicks said he didn’t understand why a similar policy can’t apply to law enforcement.
Nicks said he wanted to continue working with Howell and RPD to make the policy satisfactory for both the department and the public.
What’s in writing
The policy states that officers are to record anytime they have “a contact with a member of the public” including:
- Duties of an investigatory nature
- Enforcement actions
- Interactions with members of the public in the performance of the officer’s official law enforcement duties, unless an exception applies.
Howell told the council that the equipment the force has purchased includes triggers that automatically initiate body camera recording: if the squad’s speed goes over 55 mph or if an officer removes a weapon from its squad car rack or turns on their squad lights.
The policy also lays out exceptions for when officers are allowed to turn off their cameras:
- Places where a “reasonable expectation of privacy exists” such as restrooms, locker room and dressing rooms unless they are conducting law enforcement business.
- During body cavity searches which are only allowed in a medical setting, but they should be on if an officer is conducting a pat-down or vehicle search in the field.
- During conversations with fellow officers during “routine and non-enforcement activities” such as rest breaks, report writing, roll calls, general discussions, discussions of cases or during administrative tasks.
- While conducting police association or personal business such as conversations in counseling, guidance sessions, personnel evaluations or “any similar supervisory interaction.”
- To surreptitiously record conversations with the general public or other officers in violation of First Amendment rights to protected speech, association or religion.
- To record undercover officers and confidential informants unless authorized.
- To record “any unofficial law enforcement or personal activity.”
The following are situations where an officer may record but can decide not to:
- Whenever a member believes that a recording of the interaction may be useful for official purposes, the contact may be recorded.
- Interactions with a victim or witness who refuses to be recorded while giving a statement.
- Conducting a custodial interrogation or interview in a room which is equipped with recording equipment and the recording equipment is used in place of a body worn camera.
- While in a medical facility, unless making an arrest or taking custody of a person, which is a required use.
Officers are also allowed to temporarily turn off their cameras to discuss strategies and tactics among themselves, though they are required to announce the reason they are discontinuing recording.
Tate asked Howell whether privacy was at the officer’s discretion, and if an officer could turn off a camera and say it was out of concern for a person’s privacy.
“It’s better to have this footage and not need it than to need it and not have it,” said Howell.
Howell said that generally, officers are to record whenever they interact with a member of the public, and an individual’s privacy considerations would come into play if and when video is released to the public.
As for when or how footage could be disclosed to the public, those issues are laid out in two paragraphs:
“All digital audio and video recording, including BWC (body-worn camera) data are the property of the Racine Police Department and may not be replicated, duplicated or released without the authorization of the Chief of Police or his designee. The use of BWC is for law enforcement purposes only. Civilians shall not be allowed to review BWC video without written consent of the Chief of Police and his/her designee.”
“Unauthorized replication or release of any digital audio or video recording could result in discipline. All records, include body cam videos and images, shall be considered for public release in accordance with Wisconsin Public Records Law. The minimum retention time that ordinary data will be saved on the designated Server is 180 days, unless otherwise marked for longer retention based on whether the case has been referred for prosecution.”