The Body Cam Debate: Is the public's right to know hurting law enforcement?

The Body Cam Debate: Is the public’s right to know hurting law enforcement?

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Milwaukee Police Officers have been outfitted with body cameras for more than a year now. It's still unclear what kind of direct effect it's had on law enforcement.

On one hand, there's more oversight. On the other hand, there are more knee-jerk reactions.

Milwaukee Police released the body cam video of their interaction with Demetrious Lowe within days of the incident.

The video showing the fatal officer-involved shooting of Sylville Smith was released about a year after the unrest in Sherman Park.

The difference in speed - putting body cam video out during open investigations - is leading to questions about the ripple effect and changing expectations from the public.

"It's an issue and we won't know the effect that this is going to have on policing probably for another 10 years," said Inspector Terrence Gordon with the Milwaukee Police Department.

Inspector Gordon thinks body cameras are a good thing. The department has 1,100 of them but the transparency has led to a new dynamic in the internet age.

"And even some of the recent videos that you've seen regarding our police officers where they may have done everything right, or they may have done a few things wrong. The truth doesn't matter a lot of times because the sensationalism of the image is more important than the discussion. And I really think we need to get back in balance or we'll find ourselves spinning our wheels and being in contention with each other and not getting anything accomplished," said Inspector Gordon.

A good example is video out of Sacramento, California. Someone can be heard telling officers to mute their body cameras immediately after the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark. The public response was swift, firm, and as activists argue 'appropriate.'

Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling says that situation probably could have been avoided if specific rules for officers were enforced, like their own operating procedure on muting.

"How would that be done? If they were at a call I would say 'Mrs. Smith has asked me to turn this camera off. She has asked to discuss details of this domestic violence call.' We have to be very, very diplomatic when we're out in the field and when we're recording people. We want to be mindful of their privacy, but yet still transparent to our community. So the policy is written that they have to make that record and they have to articulate while on camera and while we can still hear it - not being muted - as to why we're making that adjustment," said Sheriff Schmaling.

On an even higher level, Attorney Jon Safran who has worked on many civil rights cases says body camera operating procedures and even their availability should be standardized possibly by the state.

Dashcam video caught the June 2016 officer-involved shooting of Jay Anderson in Wauwatosa. Safran says if that officer was wearing a body camera, there would be more evidence showing what led to the gunfire.

He also believes body camera video, as a rule, should be released within a week of the incident. 

"That would help the confidence the public has and the trust they have with officers and departments, if that video is released sooner. I think keeping it quiet and keeping it private is one more way that causes distrust and I don't think that's necessarily helpful for departments."

Body camera video has also become important in regular interactions, notably, the recent police run-in with Milwaukee State Senator Lena Taylor. Inspector Gordon, however, says he thinks video releases should still be handled very thoughtfully.

"It can make policymakers, whether it's the police department, whether it's City Hall, whether it's in state government, to make bad decisions. Because although the camera is unbiased, it doesn't necessarily tell the whole story," said 

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