Report On Milwaukee PD Body Cams Show Fewer Complaints, Fewer Stops, But No Reduction In Use Of Force

from the better-than-nothing,-but-how-much-better? dept

The Milwaukee PD is (or was) staring down the barrel of a DOJ consent decree for its unconstitutional policing (mainly stop-and-frisk) and routine deployment of excessive force. This is among the many concerns brought to light last year by the DOJ’s draft report on the department.

The Milwaukee Police Department fails the community and its own officers by not communicating clearly, making too many traffic stops and applying inconsistent standards when disciplining officers, according to a draft of a federal report obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The draft report offers a particularly damning critique of Chief Edward Flynn’s reliance on data, a signature component of his strategy since he took over the department in 2008. Federal evaluators found this approach is having a damaging, if unintended, effect on police-community relations.

“MPD’s attention to crime data has distracted the department from the primary tenet of modern policing: trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve,” the draft report states.

The DOJ also found officers had no idea what community policing entailed, suggesting it only applied to other officers officially designated as community liaisons. The DOJ highlighted the disconnection between the MPD’s statements and actions on community policing using this depressing anecdote.

[T]he Milwaukee Police Department doesn’t have a strategic plan for community policing or a set of guidelines regarding it, the draft report says. And department-wide training on how to implement the strategy has not been offered in years.

Federal evaluators highlighted one example of an attempt at community engagement that fell flat.

Officers held a roll-call, or shift change, outside a Milwaukee school. The stated purpose was to let kids know officers wanted them to have a safe summer. The problem? There were no kids in sight, not even student leaders.

The evaluators noted the event may even have sent the wrong message: That the students on summer break were a problem, and the police planned to deal with them.

This draft may never coalesce into an official report. AG Jeff Sessions’ full-blooded support for law enforcement includes allowing them to be a law unto themselves by killing off DOJ investigations of misbehaving police forces. What’s in the draft report is damning, but it will probably remain a draft in perpetuity.

The PD’s responsiveness to community unhappiness did at least result in one change: a pilot program equipping officers with body cameras. Unfortunately, the cameras appear to have done little to address one community complaint.

Milwaukee police officers with body cameras made fewer stops and were less likely receive a citizen complaint, a new study has found.

But when it comes to use of force — the primary reason residents clamored for officers to use the cameras — it didn’t matter if officers had the cameras or not. They used force at roughly the same rates.

The PD claims this report [PDF] vindicates officers and the department itself, at least in terms of accusations of excessive force deployment. According to the PD, the conclusions make it clear officers have applied force in accordance with policy. But that’s stretching the findings a bit much. It could also mean the deterrent effect one assumes the cameras would have simply hasn’t materialized. Officers may feel footage is at least as likely to clear them as damn them and are willing to roll the dice.

And the dice come pre-loaded: officers are given weeks or months to make statements when accused of deploying excessive force. And while statements from witnesses are recorded, those made by officers are not, allowing them to retcon narratives if body cam footage refuses to align with the official narrative. The body cam footage may be a new twist, but the internal investigation process has been an issue for a long time. It, too, receives criticism in the DOJ’s draft report.

When it comes to officer-involved shootings, the cases reviewed by the Justice Department were inconsistent and the documentation was inadequate.

In both non-fatal shootings and other uses of force, information about officers’ training, prior use of force, complaints and discipline were not included in internal affairs files.

That information also does not seem to have an effect on whether officers are promoted.

One number that did drop in the wake of camera deployment is street stops. Officers wearing cameras performed far fewer stops than officers without them. This suggests the stop-and-frisk program the PD is currently being sued over tends to make the Constitution an afterthought. Documentation of unconstitutional stops isn’t going to help the PD emerge victorious in this lawsuit and the simplest solution is to leave those stops to officers without cameras.

It’s not all negative, however. As noted above, officers with cameras received 50% fewer complaints, suggesting the presence of another “witness” causes both parties to treat each other with a little more respect. Camera use can result in de-escalation, which is something rarely willfully practiced by officers.

But we can’t read too much into that either. The drop in complaints is tracked by a drop in stops, which may suggest the cameras aren’t “civilizing” interactions so much as fewer of them are taking place.

Body cams are band-aids, at best. They can never be a panacea, but they’re far from useless. Things do change when law enforcement operates under additional scrutiny. But they don’t change as quickly or dramatically as proponents of cameras hope they will. A seismic cultural shift is needed in most departments and body cameras will only incrementally increase the speed in which bad apples are expunged from the barrel. But the barrel will still be filled with slightly-less-rotten apples. That being said, cameras should be a requirement as should the presumption that missing footage weighs against a cop’s statements. Just because they’re not working as well as many of us thought they would doesn’t mean it’s without its merits.

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