After a Kenosha Police officer shot a Black man on Aug. 23, spurring chaos and civil unrest, Kenosha Alderman Rocco LaMacchia hopes that the city can fund body cameras in its 2021 budget.
The City Council approved body cameras for Kenosha Police in 2017, but since then their purchase was continually pushed back. As a result, there is no body camera footage of 29-year-old Jacob Blake being shot at seven times at close range after he walked away from police and attempted to open the door of his vehicle. The Department of Justice has since reported that Blake had a knife in his possession.
“Our mayor wants the body cameras, our chief of police wants the body cameras and I would say all the aldermen want it, it’s just a question of when and how can we afford it?” LaMacchia said. “I hate to say, ‘How can we afford it?’ because I don’t like to put dollar figures in front of saving lives, but unfortunately that’s the way it is.”
Blake is now paralyzed from the waist down, according to his family. It’s unknown if his condition is permanent.
‘Body cameras mean accountability’
Carl Fields, community organizer for the Racine and Kenosha chapter of Ex-incarcerated People Organizing, believes that having body cameras would be a step in the right direction.
“The fact that they push it off? I’m sure it’s part strategic, part budget,” Fields said. “There is a cost involved. I think that police should support body cameras for their sake and their safety and their level of accountability to the community.”
He believes the city would have to purchase cameras for officers if the police union pushed for it.
“Body cameras mean accountability,” Fields said. “The system already feels that it is accountable. People in the neighborhoods disagree, particularly neighborhoods of color, particularly heavily-policed neighborhoods.”
Funding for police body cameras is in the City of Kenosha’s capital improvement plan for 2022. LaMacchia is chairman of the city’s Public Safety and Welfare Committee, which plays a hands-on role in creating the police department’s annual budget. He is hoping to move that funding up a year, but said he cannot make any promises. After the public safety committee, the budget then goes through the Finance Committee and would then have to be approved by the City Council.
“I think we can make it work,” LaMacchia said. “I hope we can.”
‘Data storage .. gorilla on our back’
LaMacchia said the body camera purchase was stalled by not only the price of the cameras themselves, but the cost of storing footage, which sometimes has to be kept as evidence over long periods when court dates are continually pushed back.
“So the data storage is the 800-pound gorilla on our back right now,” he said.
Another added cost would be updated squad car cameras, since the data storage for Kenosha’s existing equipment would not be compatible with new body cameras, LaMacchia said.
The alderman said the process was also delayed due to privacy concerns with state-level body camera policy, but said those issues had been remedied around a year ago.
When former Racine Police Deputy Chief David Smetana became chief of the Pleasant Prairie Police Department, he quickly moved to get body cameras, primarily as a way to gather more evidence and to protect officers from claims of wrongdoing. But getting cameras is a lot more expensive for a department like Kenosha’s, which has hundreds of officers compared to Pleasant Prairie’s dozens.
Kenosha’s 2021 budgeting process is already underway, and LaMacchia said his committee will likely receive figures and requests from Police Chief Daniel Miskinis to begin working with in October or early November.
Tight budgets expected
Budgets will likely be even tighter than usual this year as the state struggles with revenue due to fallout from COVID-19.
In 2016, 56% of police departments nationwide with between 100 and 250 officers had acquired body cameras and most had some officers wearing them, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice study. Their use is believed to have increased substantially since then, although funding challenges remain.
In Wisconsin especially, localities have trouble funding budgets because of restrictive levy limit laws passed in 2011 by the Wisconsin Legislature and Republican then-Gov. Scott Walker. The laws essentially said that cities couldn’t increase their budgets unless they had new development. Municipalities are being pushed against those limits as the costs of public safety and roads continue growing quickly without the ability to increase revenue.
While Fields doesn’t believe that body cameras are an answer to all the issues with policing in Black neighborhoods, he does think it brings the rest of the community up to speed on what’s happening.
“The things that we’re seeing on camera, we’ve been going through this all our lives,” Fields said.
Fields’ own past makes him particularly qualified to comment on volatile police encounters. Twenty years ago, Fields was in a 6-hour standoff with Racine Police. Both he and officers fired shots, but the situation ultimately ended peacefully.
“At the end of that encounter, everybody went home,” Fields said. “Everybody walked away from that breathing.”
He attributes that to the police involved in the situation doing their jobs well. After serving 16 years in prison, Fields is now the program manager at the Hospitality Center in Racine, a day center that serves meals and provides other supports to those in need. He’s also involved in many other community organizations and efforts, including Racine Mayor Cory Mason’s recently formed Task Force on Police Reform.
“I’m grateful for the fact that I have my life to pursue,” Fields said. “At this point in my life, the irony for me is, I’m lifted up as a person who’s supportive in the community. I got a community leader award not long ago. All of these things that speak to the fact that I can contribute to society in a very meaningful way, when 20 years ago I was in the exact same scenario that we’re seeing on TV all around the country, except they (police) did their jobs a certain way and I didn’t lose my life.”
Others have not been as lucky in their encounters with police, and Fields laments the fact that those young people won’t have the chance to find redemption. Contributing to these tragic encounters, Fields said, are police bias against Black and brown people, over-policing of their neighborhoods and systemic racism.
Optional, but ‘encouraged’
As the community of Mount Pleasant knows too well, even police departments that have body cameras can find their officers’ use of force in question, especially if the department’s camera policy is lacking.
When Mount Pleasant Police Sgt. Eric Giese fatally shot 18-year-old Ty’Rese West, who was Black, on June 15, 2019, Giese was wearing a body camera, but it wasn’t switched on.
“Sergeant Giese believed he was not able to manually activate his body camera due to him watching Mr. West’s location, beginning his foot pursuit, and attempting to make contact with dispatch on his portable radio,” according to a decision from the Racine County District Attorney’s office not to charge Giese in West’s death.
At the time, using a body camera was optional but “encouraged” for Mount Pleasant officers. Now wearing a camera is mandatory and officers are supposed to use them during most encounters with the public, although use is still somewhat left to the officer’s discretion.
The Mount Pleasant Police body camera policy reads: “Members will make every effort to activate the recorder any time they are performing official law enforcement duties and believe it would be appropriate or valuable to record an incident.”
Since the West shooting, the Mount Pleasant Police Department purchased body cameras for every officer. The cameras automatically turn on if the officer’s squad car dashboard camera is triggered, when it reaches at least 70 miles per hour or its lights are activated.
Mount Pleasant Police Chief Matthew Soens said it would be difficult to guarantee that if another deadly use of police force happened in the village, that it would definitely be caught on camera, due to factors beyond his control like possible technology malfunctions.
“What I can say is with our new cameras, combined with our revised policy, the likelihood that incidents will be captured via our cameras is extremely high,” Soens said.
“Body cameras mean accountability. The system already feels that it is accountable. People in the neighborhoods disagree, particularly neighborhoods of color, particularly heavily-policed neighborhoods.” Carl Fields, community organizer for Ex-incarcerated People Organizing
“I hate to say, ‘How can we afford it?’ because I don’t like to put dollar figures in front of saving lives, but unfortunately that’s the way it is.” Rocco LaMacchia, Kenosha alderman
“I hate to say, ‘How can we afford it?’ because I don’t like to put dollar figures in front of saving lives, but unfortunately that’s the way it is.”
Rocco LaMacchia, Kenosha alderman
“Body cameras mean accountability. The system already feels that it is accountable. People in the neighborhoods disagree, particularly neighborhoods of color, particularly heavily-policed neighborhoods.”
Carl Fields, community organizer for Ex-incarcerated People Organizing
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