WAUKESHA — In the current climate of strained police-community relationships, it’s hard to put a price on the value of a first-person view of police interactions, but some law enforcement agencies in southeast Wisconsin are saying body cameras are too expensive.
“It’s a tool that we haven’t, as a city, decided to purchase yet,” Waukesha Mayor, Shawn Reilly said. “There has been some discussion bout body cameras since 2019. The police department has indicated, they’re in favor of them. Paying for them is the difficulty.”
Waukesha police are one of 158 agencies in the state without body cameras. At the moment, Waukesha police have dash cameras in squad cars and the officers are equipped with microphones to record audio from their interactions with police.
Mayor Reilly says less than one percent of police interactions in the city results in the use of force. So while he supports the use of body cameras, he feels, at the present, there are enough video options in place to provide full transparency for the city.
“We have video cameras in police cars and when an officer leaves his car to go up to a situation, he or she is mic’d up,” Reilly said. “We already are videotaping a lot of interactions between police and the public. In our downtown area, we have hundreds of cameras, at least 100, spread throughout downtown. Those cameras do not pick up sound. They come in, different angles show, that would pick up other things that would happen.”
Reilly says body cameras would cost the city roughly $700,000 over the next five years. Another municipality in our area decided on ponying up the coin to cover body cameras, even if it was difficult financially.
“It’s such a heavy financial lift, it kept getting put off,” Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride said. “But the incidents of the last year showed the urgency for body cameras.”
The price in Wauwatosa, over five years, is $762,064.30. McBride says the city dipped into its contingency fund to help pay for them. A contingency fund is essentially money for emergencies; like a fire engine unexpectedly breaking down.
“Those are contingencies we’ve discussed,” McBride said, referencing a broken fire engine. “But the urgency was there, so we decided it was important to use that money.”
Since 2015, Waukesha has had $585,443 in unspent contingency funds. The city has chosen to roll that money over into the General Fund, Unassigned Fund Balance which, as of the latest audit, totals $19,557,260.
In addition, the City of Waukesha approved the construction of a new city hall in 2019, totaling $27,323,000. The former city hall, built in 1965, was reported to have many issues, including a water-damaged boiler room and flooding issues. The new city hall opened in February of this year. While Reilly claims costs are the biggest reason for not having body cameras yet, he also points to the constituents as a reason.
“That’s for the public to provide that kind of input to the Common Council or to the City,” Reilly said. “We haven’t had that push. If there was a large request for body cameras from the public, it would happen.”
Despite the amount of money it has saved in contingency funds, unassigned funds and tens of millions spent on a new city hall, Waukesha City Administrator Kevin Lahner says increasing operation expenses could put some $2 million in state funds at risk.
Each year, municipalities across Wisconsin receive funding from the state as part of the Expenditure Restraint Program (ERP). The program is an effort to limit growth in spending and rewards communities for complying. A long, convoluted formula, factoring in growth, figures out how much the municipality will earn for keeping spending down. Since 2015, the City of Waukesha has received anywhere from $1.9 million to nearly $2.2 million.
Mayor Reilly says body cameras would add roughly $140,000 to the annual budget for the next five years.
When asked about how much an increase of $140,000 to the operations budget would impact the ERP funding the city receives, Lahner says it’s not a figure they can simply plug in to figure out.
Another area of spending the city has had to deal with is in settlement payments for various police activities, including use of force. According to an open records request submitted to MuckRock, the City of Waukesha has paid out $943,395.30 for various police-related issues.
One civil case still being resolved is for the officer-involved shooting death of a 58-year-old Milwaukee man.
“We allege that the Waukesha Police Department used excessive force in shooting and killing Mr. Ashland on April 15, 2020,” Attorney Alison Leff said.
Leff represents the Estate of Randy Ashland. Ashland was suicidal and armed with a handgun in April of 2020. The lawsuit says his pastor drove him to Waukesha Memorial Hospital for help, but Ashland wouldn’t go inside without his gun. More than a dozen officers responded to the scene.
The Waukesha District Attorney ruled the use of force was warranted, after the testimonies of officers on scene. The lawsuit filed by Leff alleges the shooting was unnecessary. They allege Ashland never pointed the gun at police.
“We allege Mr. Ashland wasn’t posing an imminent threat to anyone at the time he was shot,” Left said. “We allege that he never pointed a firearm at the police officers. He was trying to follow police orders, trying to throw his gun away. He was holding his gun in his non-shooting hand at the cylinder of the gun, in a way where it could not have been fired.”
Leff says the only usable video from the scene, since Waukesha Police Officers do not have body cameras, comes from a surveillance camera at Waukesha Memorial Hospital.
“There was no [squad] car that was positioned in a way that clearly showed what happened,” Leff said. “If there had been body-worn cameras in this case that showed what happened, we think, number one, we may be able to show objectively that Mr. Ashland never raised a weapon against police, that he was following orders, that he was trying to toss his gun away as he was told to do when he was shot to death.”
Mayor Reilly and the Waukesha Police will not comment on an open investigation. Reilly does admit to the usefulness of body cameras in general.
“There is no question, that in some cases, body cameras are determinative as to providing to the public, as well as to the courts and the police department, a depiction of exactly what did happen,” Reilly said.
Several notable officer-involved incidents in Southeast Wisconsin have lacked body camera footage; the justified shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha and the three justified shootings by Former Wauwatosa Police Officer Joseph Mensah. Both municipalities were the settings of highly intense protests over the summer; Former President Trump and then Presidential Candidate Joe Biden traveled to the scene in Kenosha in the months that followed. These events have played a role in municipalities like Wauwatosa and Kenosha to speed up their efforts at getting body cameras.
“I do think he events over the last year or so have helped kind of push us towards that to say, yep, we’re going to do it,” Sgt. Abby Pavlik with the Wauwatosa Police Department said. “We’re going to find that money and make that purchase because it’s in the best interest of everybody.”
Wauwatosa’s officers started using body cameras in February. Kenosha Police expect to start using body cameras as soon as June.
“I think an incident similar to what happened in Kenosha can happen anywhere in the United States, in any community,” Reilly said. “Body cameras may help the issue but it doesn’t solve it. It may make it the clearest to what may have happened but you still end up with all of the issues and problems you’d have anyways.”
Reilly says body cameras may be included in the 2022 budget, but nothing is set in stone.
“The cost is coming down for body cameras considerably from what we originally looked at in 2019 to now,” Reilly said. “The last two budget cycles, there was nothing in regards to grants for this. If there is a grant for it, we’re going for a grant to purchase body cameras immediately for our officers. If there aren’t any grants for the 2022 budget, it may come up to the surface anyway.”