More than a thousand Milwaukee police officers now wear body cameras. The rollout started in late fall of 2015. Fast forward two years, have those cameras made any impact on policing?
The I-Team got an early look at the numbers.
The department rolled out the program in response to calls for police transparency happening both here at home and across the U.S. We got a look at early research to see how body cameras are impacting what MPD officers have been doing every day.
"There's almost no level of scrutiny that's too much for a police department," MPD Inspector Terrance Gordon pointed out. And MPD has been under a powerful microscope the last few years. Officers started wearing body cameras in October 2015. Since then, the Sylville Smith officer-involved shooting is one of the biggest use of force situations where body camera video helped tell some of the story.
Dominique Heaggan-Brown, a now-former officer, was charged in the shooting death. A jury acquitted him. "While the camera itself is unbiased none of the human eyes that are looking at it are," Inspector Gordon told us.
But when it comes to MPD officers' use of force, new data shows nothing has changed since the department started using body cameras. MPD partnered with the Urban Institute, a non-profit research organization out of D.C. It studied a group of 504 officers over 9 months. One group had body cameras, the other group of officers did not.
Researcher Bryce Peterson said, "the number of use of force incidents among officers who had cameras didn't change. So, in other words, the two groups were the same."
Inspector Gordon looks at a lot of use of force reports and told the I-Team he saw officers making good decisions before body cams, and said he's glad to see adding the cameras didn't change officers' behavior. "It seems like it would be better news to say 'and it went down.' And then I, myself, would have some concerns about our force decision making before the implementation."
When it comes to citizen complaints MPD pointed out there's been a 75% decline since 2007. And on top of that, the Urban Institute also found body cameras made an impact. The officers wearing the cameras had fewer complaints filed against them.
"I absolutely feel it's been a good project," Inspector Gordon told us. A project he pointed out officers embraced from the start. "Their good work, the difficult situations they're in could now be seen." Like a recent life-saving effort by two officers. In December they pulled three teens from a fiery crash.
The Urban Institute also studied the impact of body cameras and proactive activity by officers. An area of concern for MPD going into the camera rollout. "Officers would be less likely to engage with citizens because they would be afraid of the scrutiny that would come out of it," Inspector Gordon explained.
The study found officers with body cameras engaged in more good policing activities like making contact with citizens and neighborhood businesses.
This study is ongoing. The Urban Institute will continue to track officers equipped with cameras through September. The institute is also making policy recommendations to MPD. One being considered is having officers wear body cameras at special events like parades, festivals, and sporting events. That would require a policy change and still has to go before the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission for a vote.