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The warped lens of Madison’s body-camera debate

In a landscape of opacity and impunity, video footage can only do so much.
Illustration: Diagrams of Axon body cameras are shown. In their lenses are images of police, the 2020 Madison riots, shell casings, the Dane County Courthouse, a black hole, and Madison Police Department Chief Shon Barnes. Black hole image via NASA. Ammunition photo via Pixabay

In a landscape of opacity and impunity, video footage can only do so much.

“If only those officers had been wearing body cameras, then we would know.”

This is the big argument for police body cameras, at least in terms of how they are sold to the public. Tuesday night, the Madison Common Council will consider a resolution that would kick off a body-cam pilot program at the Madison Police Department. Those in favor try to make a compelling argument that body cams will bring more transparency and accountability to policing. 

This relies on several assumptions: 

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  • The footage itself will be revealing and reliable.
  • The footage will be made available to the public and defense attorneys in time to be useful, and without redactions or alterations.
  • Police have an implementation plan that will ensure consistent recording, logging, and archiving, and will follow it.
  • Police and prosecutors will use body-cam footage honestly, not manipulating it in court or in their interactions with media outlets.
  • When body-cam footage shows a need for disciplinary action or a policy change, our institutions will act accordingly.

It would seem foolish to argue against anything that creates more transparency, especially in the opaque and unaccountable world of policing. This can seem downright callous, given how hard it already is for people who’ve lost loved ones to police violence to expose the truth and seek some measure of justice. But it is a mistake to believe that we can get the transparency we need from the tools an opaque institution is championing. 

The best technology, the truest footage, and the most equitable implementation would still feed into the existing legal framework around open records, court disclosure, and public access. Police may or may not care that much that the public is watching. Matthew Braunginn, in a piece last week for Isthmus, provided an excellent breakdown of the muddled body of research on whether body cameras impact police officers’ use of force. Braunginn also points out:

What shows up in video footage depends often on the angle at which it is taken; police body-cam footage can look very different from bystander footage. The same scene can either look like a person is dancing, or, when taken from a body-worn camera, fighting an officer.

The transparency argument for body cameras treats footage as a key missing puzzle piece of objective evidence. This reflects the broader optimism of law enforcement tech advocates, including MPD Chief Shon Barnes (himself a proponent of predictive-policing algorithms), that technological solutions can take a lot of the human bias out of policing, making it more effective, accountable, and trustworthy. In reality, these tools can introduce their own forms of bias while reinforcing biases that already exist, and they combine the unaccountability of policing with the unaccountability of powerful private tech companies. Police tech can backfire at grievous human expense. Facial recognition software has led to wrongful arrests. Dozens of cities across the country, including Milwaukee, use “gunshot detection” systems from the for-profit company ShotSpotter, in a purported effort to tamp down on gun violence. Under scrutiny, though, ShotSpotter has a hard time proving its technology helps, and there’s evidence that it makes over-policed communities even more over-policed.

You don’t have to be a postmodernist media-studies professor to see the problems with putting too much faith in body-cam footage itself. Image-making is a flawed, human process. Even the most immaculate footage possible may only do so much to help a viewer make sense of a violent, confusing incident that happens in mere seconds, as police shootings and other incidents often do. James Baldwin once wrote: “It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see.” Well, a camera on a police officer’s chest sees what the officer points it at. It sees the people police choose to police. The whole setup has more to do with cops watching the public than the other way around. 

A City of Madison-commissioned report on body cams issued in 2021 helps us see what such musings have to do with the problem at hand:

Because the BWC is not aimed at the wearer, it may not capture relevant actions of the wearer. BWC footage may not accurately capture the intent and possible misconduct of the person wearing the BWC, since they are largely invisible in their own BWC video. Research shows that human beings tend to judge more harshly the person who is the subject in a video and therefore to skew perception in favor of the wearer and against the subject because BWCs are pointed at the subject.

Sure, it’s true that body cams have at times helped to expose police abuses and have at times contributed to discipline. Yet accountability for police remains fragmentary and piecemeal. Disclosure practices around body-cam footage are so inconsistent that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calls it “The Wild West of open records requests.” A massive tangle of statutes, court rulings, union contracts, and departmental procedures gives police broad latitude to hurt and kill people and get away with it. Disciplinary systems for police, including Wisconsin’s system of police and fire commissions, are ineffective. The presence of more video footage might provide more evidence in disciplinary proceedings, but will not fix the structural flaws that make those proceedings a joke. 

The case for body cameras would be a lot more convincing if there was a clear pathway from footage to consequences, in the form of discipline for individual officers or policy changes from elected officials. There isn’t. Several of the Alders on the Common Council pushing for the body-cam program are the very same Alders who didn’t even have the guts to take away MPD’s tear gas. The Council hasn’t even exerted a warning tug on the pursestrings, arguably its best method for keeping police in check. A federal grant the Council accepted in March will actually commit the city to spending more on MPD in the long run.  

We also know that police frequently lie, obfuscate, and leave things out when communicating with the press and the public. Unless the storage and disclosure of body-cam footage is wholly outside the control of police and prosecutors, the prospect of transparency is further diminished. If police and prosecutors can get away with redacting parts of footage, withholding it under flimsy and selective pretexts (any reporter who’s dealt with police has heard all sorts of these, like the selectively applied “we can’t comment on ongoing investigations”), slow-walking the release of footage, or turning cameras off at crucial moments, then what’s the point?

The Federal Freedom of Information Act, and state open-records laws, generally have no teeth. Anyone who has sought “open” records as a journalist, activist, or concerned citizen will be reminded of this at every turn. Getting a given official or government agency to follow these laws can require incredible persistence and/or the resources to go to court and ask a judge to order the release of the records you seek. Open-records laws do not generally create strong methods for enforcement or funding for implementation. A body-cam pilot or program, however, would empower the Madison Police Department to spend more money and add another line item to its annual budget going forward—both to purchase the cameras, and for ongoing costs to review and preserve the footage. A Wisconsin Department of Justice report published in 2021 included survey responses from 434 law enforcement agencies across the state about their use of body and dashboard cameras. The report shows that “The most frequently indicated barriers to full recording device implementation are device cost and the cost of recording/preserving footage.”  

Proponents of body camera programs, to their credit, at least admit that cameras are imperfect and not a panacea. What they might not admit is that body cameras do not get to the root of any of the problems of policing, and in fact give police more resources and power. Body cams exist within and around the problems, and occasionally give us a glimpse of the problems. For instance, in repeated editorials supporting a body-cam pilot program, the Wisconsin State Journal‘s editorial board has pointed out that footage from police body cameras contributed to Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd. And yes, it did have an influence on the jury’s decisions. The fact that Chauvin and other officers on the scene that day had body cameras, though, did not prevent Chauvin from slowly murdering Floyd on a city street, in view of witnesses. It didn’t prevent the Minneapolis Police Department from lying in an initial press release, which attributed Floyd’s death to “medical distress.” You can stick a body cam on a liar and a murderer, but he’s still a liar and a murderer. 

At one point during Floyd’s struggle with officers in Minneapolis, Chauvin’s own camera fell off. It’s not clear how often that happens to police body cameras, but it’s an obvious impediment to getting useful footage of a profession that involves manhandling people. In fact, an Axon spokesperson told the Indianapolis Star in 2020 that “magnetic mounting options are ‘meant to break away by design,’ so that suspects can’t pull officers using the cameras.” 

MPD has also failed to be transparent in the course of making its case for body cams. Axon, the country’s leading manufacturer of body cameras, paid for space rentals and food at a series of MPD-hosted public discussions about the technology, as Isthmus reported in February. Another body-camera maker, Panasonic, was also involved in MPD’s efforts to sell body cams to the public. Chief Barnes tried to deflect criticism about the lack of disclosure around these facts. But it’s clear what this was—prospective city contractors who stand to make a lot of money from a body cam program influencing the public discussion in partnership with MPD. It was corrupt. 

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Let’s double-underline how inappropriate this was, and how severely it undermines the case for a body-cam pilot program. Not only that, but MPD, Axon, and Panasonic engaged in this corrupt, deceptive behavior in an effort to convince people that they wanted to make policing more transparent. Barnes seemed unapologetic about it. The public shouldn’t trust MPD to use body cams in an honest and forthcoming way, and neither should the Common Council. Police tend to angrily oppose real transparency and accountability measures. MPD’s full-throated embrace of body cams is in and of itself a reason to be wary.

To belabor a point Braunginn already made in his Isthmus piece, Madison police are not showing a great commitment to transparency in general. By withholding information about a cop-on-cop shooting in October 2021, MPD gave the public the mistaken impression that a man arrested during the incident was the accused shooter. After police shot Quadren Wilson in February, multiple local, state, and federal agencies dragged their feet on releasing basic details. When the Wisconsin Department of Justice investigates police shootings, it often withholds crucial information from the press and the public.

Body-cam advocates, or at least the State Journal editorial board, have cited both Wilson’s shooting and the cop-on-cop shooting to support their arguments. “If only those Madison cops on State Street had been wearing body cameras when an officer was shot,” reads one such editorial’s headline. Maybe body-camera footage would have helped shed some light on things, sure. We also don’t know how promptly police would have released the footage in these cases, given how tight-fisted they were with so much of the other crucial information. We can’t take for granted that the footage would be useful. We can’t even take for granted that it would even exist, if officers forgot to turn on their cameras, chose to turn them off, or failed to keep bodily wearing them. We don’t know how the presence of cameras would have impacted officers’ behavior, if at all. 

It’s telling that in citing both of these incidents, even pro-cop and pro-camera observers often seem to take it for granted that police will commit needless acts of violence and hide the truth. Even in the presence of body cameras. The “if only” hypotheticals are a bit tormented, and visibility runs up against impunity. Police have never been as visible to so many people as they were during the mass protests of summer 2020. Across the country, in front of massive crowds, TV cameras, and thousands of smartphones, police openly brutalized unarmed protestors with chemical weapons, projectiles, vehicular attacks. They say sunlight is the best disinfectant. What if the infection is resistant?

Less horse-race, both-sides reporting. More critical journalism that punches up.

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