Body cameras and police accountability were on the agenda at the Mount Pleasant Village Board on Monday night.
That was to be expected in the wake of the shooting death of Ty’Rese West, 18, of Racine, by Mount Pleasant Police Sgt. Eric Giese, early in the morning on June 15 on Racine Street after he was stopped while riding a bike without a light.
Police said there had been reports of thefts in the area and the suspects had been riding bikes. According to news reports, West fled; there was a struggle, Giese saw that West was armed with a handgun, and reportedly tried to use electronic control devices before fatally shooting West.
So what does the police bodycam footage show? Well, we don’t know. In fact, neither Mount Pleasant Police Chief Matt Soens nor Racine Police, who are heading up the investigation of the shooting, have said whether Sgt. Giese was wearing a bodycam, or, if he did, whether it was activated. There are “yes” or “no” answers to those questions, and so far our law enforcement agencies have not answered them.
That’s what brought a group of a dozen citizens to the Mount Pleasant Village Board meeting Monday night to vent their anger and frustration over West’s shooting, to criticize the village’s police bodycam policies and to demand more transparency.
Under the village’s police body camera policy, officers are “encouraged” to wear bodycams, but it is optional. Officers also have discretion on when to turn on the camera, and are only required to do so when executing probation and parole searches or serving a search or arrest warrant.
“We, as the community, believe that policy is unacceptable,” Cory Prince, social justice liaison for the Racine Branch of the NAACP, told board members. “Body cameras should be in place to ensure the transparency is there, that we as a public, as a community, and also as a Police Department have an opportunity to see incidents as they happen in real time.”
“That policy circumvents the whole necessity for the body cameras. It makes absolutely no sense. It leaves too much to chance,” Prince added.
His complaints were echoed by NAACP Racine Branch president, George Nicks Sr., who told the board: “We are tired of seeing black men get killed. We are tired of not seeing the evidence when they are killed. I don’t understand how a boy could go bicycle riding and end up dead, day or night. With technology today, we will no longer accept your word. We want the same transparency you afford to whites.”
While there was no action item before the board, several trustees said afterward they were open to re-examining the village’s police bodycam policy. We applaud them for that — the current policy of optional bodycams for officers is a foolish half-measure.
We have long supported the use of policy bodycams as a way to increase public confidence in law officers, by adding a layer of video and audio evidence to establish the facts of a situation when a police-citizen encounter turns difficult, or even lethal.
The Mount Pleasant Village Board may tighten up its policy and get some more bodycams for its officers. But that, too, is a half-measure.
What is needed is for the Legislature to standardize police bodycam policy across the state so Wisconsin does not have a patchwork quilt of policies that vary from one jurisdiction to another. And, yes, it would be a good idea for state government to help fund additional bodycams and video storage, particularly for smaller communities.
That legislation should include timeframes on the release of police bodycam footage to the public. That is the kind of transparency that would increase public trust in the actions of their law officers.
And no, that timeframe should not be the one preferred by Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson, who didn’t want to release police bodycam video of a fracas between a former Mount Pleasant trustee candidate and a Mount Pleasant police officer until 30 days after the case had been concluded and sentencing had been issued.
That’s not timely. If there is police bodycam footage of the West shooting —and we don’t know one way or another — we have to ask: What would be happening if the scenario had been flipped, and it was the officer who was down on the ground and the assailant was in the wind?
Our guess is that — as in the tragic shooting of Racine Police Officer John Hetland less than 72 hours later — Mount Pleasant Police would have released any video footage on day one and sought the public’s help in apprehending a suspect.
Policing is a difficult and dangerous job and often involves contact with citizens under troubling circumstances. Police bodycams can help police solve crimes and avoid frivolous charges by establishing the truth of an encounter. But it’s not a one-way street that only serves enforcement purposes; police bodycams can also hold officers accountable on those hopefully rare occasions where they fall short of their professional responsibilities.
That transparency — which can only come with timely public release of police bodycam footage — is necessary to built rapport and understanding between law enforcement officers and the citizens they serve.
That should be the goal for bodycam footage policies for both Mount Pleasant and the state Legislature.