WPD body camera program a move towards transparency

By: - March 25, 2021 5:00 am
A Wauwatosa police squad. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

A Wauwatosa police squad. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD) has begun equipping all of its officers with body cameras. In past years only members of the motorcycle unit and, occasionally, supervisors wore body cameras. Pushing the body camera program forward was one of several demands made by protesters who marched in Wauwatosa during 2020.

“Several Wauwatosa Police Department personnel received instruction on how the Axon Body 3 body-born cameras operate,” a WPD press release states. “Over the next several weeks, all officers, detectives, and supervisors were trained and began using this new technology.”

The role of the police in our society has been under a microscope since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in May, 2020. Local Policing is an ongoing series analyzing the culture, tactics and actions of departments big and small across Wisconsin. If you have a story to share about your local police, reach out to reporters Isiah Holmes and Henry Redman at [email protected] and [email protected].

The release also notes that the body cameras will be activated, “during any enforcement or investigative contract.” It will record until “the officer’s involvement in the call for service ceases or an exception to the recording becomes present. These exceptions include sensitive situations — such as interviewing victims of sexual abuse, child victims, or in certain locations such as a medical or educational setting.”

Similar to the department’s dash cameras, the body cameras always record a “buffer”, which saves the previous thirty seconds of video with no audio. Video is then secured digitally in a cloud-based evidence management system, and will be stored for a minimum of 120 days.

WPD Spokeswoman Sgt. Abby Pavlik also told Wisconsin Examiner, “Body camera footage is subject to open records law. When fulfilling open records requests, body-camera footage included, there is a balance test between transparency and the public’s right to know versus non-disclosure. Under the common law, public records may be withheld only when the public interest in non-disclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

Body cameras for the police department became a key issue particularly during the summer of 2020. As protesters and residents focused on the three fatal shootings involving former Wauwatosa officer Joseph Mensah, lack of footage raised suspicions. In the past, Chief Barry Weber has pushed back against the suggestion that  body cameras are a useful technology. However, the chief is set to retire by June, and the city is currently in search of suitable candidates for the position.

“Despite any limitations,” reads WPD’s press release, “the implementation of body-worn cameras will improve community relations and demonstrate the commitment of the Wauwatosa Police Department to serving with Integrity, Professionalism, Service and Accountability.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.