While the debate about an officer-involved shooting rages in Missouri, Middleton’s police chief says squad and body cameras can protect both citizens and police officers

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MTT News's picture
By: 
Matt Geiger
Police Chief Chuck Foulke

While questions of race, lethal force and police accountability continue to rage in Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the Middleton Police Department is making clear that it has already taken extensive steps to document its officers’ interactions with the citizenry.

“If a controversial event occurs which involves one of our officers, we are in good shape to review the incident and share the results with the public at an appropriate time,” said Chief of Police Chuck Foulke in a statement sent to city leaders last week.

“I am a firm believer in squad video cameras and am optimistic that personal body cameras will soon become part of our everyday equipment,” said Foulke. “I strongly advocate being transparent in everything we do.”

“Recording interactions between the police and the people we come in contact with, videotaping interviews we conduct with suspects, witnesses and juveniles and making those recordings available when legal and appropriate, falls into our core values of integrity, trust, competence, professional development and growth and accountability,” Foulke continued.

The Middleton Police Department already had a reputation for community outreach and openness with the press. Foulke said enhanced video recording can further strengthen those relationships.

He added that they could be used to prove officers acted lawfully and ethically, or to hold police accountable if they did not.

“Usually these recordings show that we did things the right way, the way we were trained and the way the community expects us to act,” he said. “If not, if we made an error, overreacted, were unprofessional, violated policies or broke the law, it is critical that we know this also.”

Middleton Police review recordings whenever a complaint is received, or when officers are involved in a critical incident. They also randomly check officers’ interactions with the public and use recordings for training purposes.

Officers review recordings whenever they arrest someone. “[I]t makes their reports more accurate and typically assists the prosecutors in obtaining convictions, often without a time consuming trial,” Foulke said.

In the early years of police video technology, cameras were “clumsily” mounted on the dashboards of local squad cars, according to Foulke. In those days, VCRs were stored in the trunks of police vehicles.

“We literally had hundreds, if not thousands, of VHS tapes stored in our evidence system,” said Foulke.

 The department, and the technology it employs, have come a long way since then. A sleek digital recording system has been in place since 2010, when the Middleton City Council approved funding for the upgrade.

Foulke said elected officials realized that while these systems are expensive, “not having them can produce terrible repercussions.”  

Today, there are digital audio and video units in every patrol car.  They can be manually activated, but they also turn on automatically whenever emergency lights are activated, the squad reaches a certain speed, the vehicle is involved in a crash which activates airbags, or the rifle is unlocked.  

The digital recordings are automatically, wirelessly downloaded onto a server on a regular basis.

The recordings are treated as evidence, according to Foulke, and they can be reviewed by officers but not manipulated.

All officers also wear audio recording devices paired with the cameras, which have a range of up to 150 feet.

These are not merely hypothetical scenarios, even in the relatively low-crime environment of Middleton.

When officer Nick Stroik responded to a domestic disturbance in 2011 and was greeted at the door by a man brandishing a shotgun, audio from the subsequent  shooting was captured by his car’s recorder.

Stroik could clearly be heard yelling six times for the suspect to drop the weapon before shooting the suspect.  The District Attorney and Dane County Sheriff’s Office investigators reviewed the audio, clearing Stroik of any wrongdoing in part because of the evidence.

And while protests in Ferguson are currently capturing the nation’s attention, Foulke said local police here hope to wear body cameras by 2016, if the city council approves funding for the initiative.

“Our current plan is a two part digital recording project proposal, with new digital cameras and storage system for squads in the 2015 Capital Budget and body cameras that work in the same system for the 2016 Capital Budget,” said Foulke.

He said body camera technology is still rough, but he expects it to be improved within the next couple years.

“I’m optimistic that the body cameras will be ready in 2016 so that recorded interactions can be downloaded and saved in a server in the same manner as the squad video system,” said Foulke.

 

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