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Study Of Milwaukee Police Wearing Body Cameras Finds Some Changes In Officer Actions

Study: Use Of Force Is Apparently Unchanged

Body camera
Jim Mone/AP Photo

A review of the body cameras worn by Milwaukee police shows the cameras may have changed some officer behavior, but the use of force remains the same.

Using a federal grant, the Urban Institute conducted the body camera evaluation for about a year from 2015 to 2016. With the cooperation of the Milwaukee Police Department, the nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. randomly studied 504 Milwaukee patrol officers who wear body cameras.

Overall, about 1,100 patrol officers in the city now wear the cameras.

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Bryce Peterson, the study’s co-author, said one finding is that officers wearing cameras were less likely to be the target of a citizen complaint. He speculates there’s a “civilizing effect, which essentially means that if both the officers and community member who’s interacting with the officer, if they both know there’s a body camera recording their interactions, they’re going to be on their best behavior, essentially, right?” Peterson said.

Peterson also said officers wearing cameras were less likely to conduct so-called “subject stops,” which include stopping pedestrians or other people not in vehicles.

But Peterson said the cameras had no effect on whether officers engaged in the use of force, perhaps because use of force incidents by Milwaukee police had already been going down in recent years due to a change in department policy.

“If they’re already using restraint and following policy, simply giving them a camera — all that’s going to do is justify that use of force incident — it’s not necessarily going to change behaviors. That could be one explanation for what we’re seeing,” Peterson said.

Peterson presented the research Thursday evening to the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, where Milwaukee Police Department body camera administrator Doug Warrick praised the report.

“What this shows is our department, for the most part, is doing the right thing. Using the appropriate amount of force in most cases,” he said. “I think it leads to how well we’re being trained. I think it also says a lot for the supervision, as well.”

Steven DeVougas, chairman of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, said he’s pleased with parts of the body camera report, but said he’d like to see the use of force go down. DeVougas said another study shows there’s a switch taking place.

“We just recently had our use of force report issued in 2017 and we saw there was an over-reliance on Tasers. People stopped using their firearms but they started using Tasers. So hopefully, we keep de-escalating force and only use force as a last resort,” DeVougas said.

Cynthia Greenwood of the Coalition for Justice told the commission that police use of force remains a problem at several departments in the metropolitan area.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9 p.m. Thursday, May 17, 2018 to include comments from the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission meeting.