Are body cameras for police worth the cost?

Beginning this spring, the Milwaukee Police Department will outfit many of its officers with body cameras – small recording devices that capture police interactions as they unfold – and spend up to $100,000 on the new initiative, the amount set aside in this year’s city budget. The equipment, a leap forward in police transparency, doesn’t come cheaply, and MPD, as of early 2015, was unable to say exactly how many of its officers would be receiving the cameras. Chief Ed Flynn has in the past estimated 100, almost one per each of the 125 patrol units active in the city at any given time. Outfitting each and every MPD officer would probably cost far more than $100,000, judging by the experiences of other camera-friendly jurisdictions: Port Washington spent about $10,000 in 2012 to buy just six cameras and a video-storage system, and the County Board has budgeted $15,000 to equip Sheriff David Clarke’s Tactical Enforcement unit in 2015. After a string of high-profile deaths of police detainees – including Dontre Hamilton’s in Milwaukee – Clarke says the cameras are an “inevitability,” but he also thinks “it’s a little shortsighted” to view them as a panacea.

But what are they good for? A group of five Milwaukee aldermen argued in December that all MPD officers should wear cameras and promised to seek funding for them. Their faith in surveillance may be justified. A recent report in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology found that after the Rialto, Calif., police department spent $90,000 to purchase 66 body cameras, their deployment saved the city an estimated $400,000 in litigation costs related to use-of-force complaints. In the study – one of the first of its kind – officers who didn’t wear body cameras were about twice as likely to use force as those who did. Who knew Big Brother could be so calming?

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This story appears in the February, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.