MPD To Arrestees: You're On Candid Camera

Citizens checked out the Milwaukee Police Department’s new toys at a town hall meeting Monday night.

Citizens checked out the Milwaukee Police Department’s new toys at a town hall meeting Monday night.

Police squads and wagons lined up outside of the Washington Park Senior Center, 4420 W. Vliet St., as wide-eyed citizens sat inside them and checked out the new video and audio equipment.

A presentation explaining the gadgets followed, headed by the police department and the city’s Commission on Police Community Relations.

(photo by Megan Schmidt)

A front view and rear view camera automatically activates when an officer turns on the squad’s emergency lights. The camera’s zooming feature allows officers to see a license plate from a block away.

Microphones pick up sound to up to 1,000 feet away and are turned on at the officer’s discretion.

Footage is available to the public through the open records desk and is provided on either CD or DVD format for 120 days, unless it’s requested for court purposes within the offense’s statute of limitations.

The police department started using the technology sparingly in 2004, with only 34 squads equipped by 2007. With the help of a $357, 200 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice awarded this year, 118 police squads and wagons now tote the equipment—or roughly two-thirds of all squads.

Police Chief Edward Flynn hopes every squad in the force will outfitted by next year. It’s a tool that helps the department keep a closer eye on officers and offenders.


“A picture is worth a 1,000 words, but a video is even better,” said Lt. Alan Johnson. “If a guy is fleeing from police and says he didn’t know he was being chased, but we catch him driving recklessly and going on the grass we can show he knew police were behind him.”

Lt. Johnson presented real footage, including an 85 mile per hour high speed chase towards West Milwaukee and a traffic stop.

One video showed a person detained in the back seat of a squad who pulled out drugs hidden in his waistband and stashed them under a seat—evoking laughter from the crowd.

Officers discovered the drugs after the two men were released. In the past, it’s likely neither would be prosecuted because the men would point fingers at each other, Lt. Johnson said. However, the correct man was charged after his bold act was caught on tape.

“People in the public defender’s office are also very happy with this because they can find out of a client is lying,” he said.

In addition to serving as evidentiary material, the footage allows the department to make training videos for new recruits and helps them to clear up citizen complaints.

A 2006 independent study found that the Fire and Police Commission’s process of handling complaints is broken. Cases seldom make it to trial, and often there are no findings of police misconduct.

The study found that only eight out of 437 citizen complaints filed between 2000 and 2005 made it to trial. Of the eight cases presented before a judge, two were sustained.

“The No. 1 complaint we receive is that an officer was rude during a traffic stop,” said Lt. Johnson. “If we’re hearing negative things about an officer—a younger officer or not—we can review the footage and find out if we need to coach them.”

Police bikes and motorcycles aren’t outfitted with the equipment at this time, but the department is experimenting with portable cameras on its recruits in the police academy.

“As technology gets smaller and smaller, we’ll be seeing more of this…and we’re getting to that point,” Lt. Johnson said.

At the end of each shift, officers view the day’s footage and upload it onto the department’s main system—described as being similar to a computer hard drive. Officers are not able to edit or delete footage.

Every officer received one hour and 30 minutes of training and are told to make arrests, search people and conduct sobriety tests within the camera’s field of view if safety permits it.

Milwaukee joins ranks of other departments:

West Allis, Kenosha, Madison, and Chicago also use the technology.

“We already have more cameras inside our cars than the city of Chicago,” said Chief Flynn.

In addition to the grant the police department received this year, units were funded with a $100,000 grant from the Milwaukee Commission on Police Community Relations and other grants with origins Lt. Johnson was unaware of Monday night.

While the event was about educating the public about tools police use, it was also about strengthening community relations.

“This is about making the police department open and accessible to the city. When people only interact with police when something negative happens, it breeds suspicion and distrust,” said Ralph Hollmon, President and CEO of the Milwaukee West Urban League.

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