Racine Police Chief Art Howell rolled out his policy proposal for police body cameras last week. Predictably, they were greeted with numerous questions and concerns from the public and city aldermen.
That was to be expected, since police body cams and their use have been a hot topic in several instances in Racine and surrounding communities for the past two years.
There were protest marches urging that city police be equipped with body cams after the police shooting death of Donte Shannon in January 2018. Those officers were not wearing body cams.
In June, Ty ’Rese West was fatally shot by a Mount Pleasant police sergeant after he was stopped for not having a light on his bike; police there have refused to even disclosed whether the officer was wearing a body camera.
Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson refused to release body-cam footage of the arrest of a former Mount Pleasant Village Board candidate in a traffic-related dust-up for a year-and-a-half. The footage was only made public after the case was settled with a misdemeanor guilty plea.
So, yes, even as Chief Howell gets set to fully deploy body cams on the Racine police force after completing a pilot project to test them, they have already been at the center of several controversies.
At last week’s City Council session, the floor was opened to the public after Howell’s presentation.
Some of the questions were over concerns that the policy did not make clear to what extent officers would be held accountable for noncompliance for not activating a body cam when they were supposed to.
Howell indicated that would be a judgment call looking at the “totality of the circumstances,” but that drew a response that it was not enough, and that the policy should be longstanding and not dependent on who is in office.
Another person suggested officers be required to have their body-cams turned on for their entire shift, but Howell said that would cost several million dollars for storage.
The concerns and the controversy over body cams are real. We would hope Chief Howell adjusts the policy to reflect some of the concerns.
We would add another to that list. Howell’s policy states that: “All records, including body cam videos and videos images shall be considered for public release in accordance with Wisconsin Public Records Law.”
That’s cheering, because it recognizes that body-cam footage is indeed a public record. And yes, there are many exceptions to public release to make sure it doesn’t compromise someone’s privacy rights or impede an investigation — as it should be.
But time and time again, we have seen public officials stonewall, and delay or deny the release of public records — in some cases, to avoid their own embarrassment.
We would urge Chief Howell to add a sentence or paragraph saying body-cam video footage will be released within five days, barring any exceptions for privacy or legitimate investigative concerns.
Make it clear that the expectation is that body cams will be used not only to protect officers from specious charges or to solve a crime, but to assure the public that their officers have acted in a professional and just manner and are doing their duty. Building public confidence in the conduct of police officers is one of the main reasons we have supported police body cams from the start.
We have no doubt that if police body-cam footage showed a fleeing lawbreaker that Racine Police were still seeking, the department would release it immediately and ask the public’s help in making an apprehension.
We would be happy to post such footage to our website to aid in that effort.
A five-day release policy on body-cam footage is not some radical proposal or one that is technically difficult.
Just two weeks ago, a police officer in the Dallas suburb of Arlington shot and killed a 30-year-old homeless woman lying on a greenway near a shopping center after responding to a 911 call for an unresponsive woman.
The officer’s body-cam video was released the day after the shooting. It shows the officer firing three shots at the woman’s dog as it runs toward him.
The woman, Maggie Brooks, the daughter of a fire captain, is laying on the grass in the background directly behind the dog and is heard saying, “Oh, my God. The police shot me.” She later died.
“Everything about this call is an absolute tragedy,” Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson said, “Our hearts are broken for the Brooks family and the officer involved.”
While an investigation is underway, the body-cam footage would appear to show the shooting was accidental. That’s a police involved-shooting, a fatality, and it was released in a day.
That’s the kind of transparency and sharing of the facts that we would encourage Chief Howell to include in the Racine Police body-cam policy.
Ultimately, the issue of body-cam footage and its release should be taken up by the state Legislature — which has, so far, not acted — to make sure policies of police departments across the state are consistent and not a hodge-podge of conflicting standards.
Until that happens, Chief Howell and the city should adopt a reasoned and reasonable standard for this crime-fighting tool that can protect officers from unjustified charges, help catch criminal lawbreakers and inform and assure citizens in a timely fashion that our officers are doing their jobs in a professional manner.