Kenosha delayed body cameras for years before Jacob Blake shooting

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Wednesday, August 26, 2020
Kenosha delayed body cameras for years before Blake shooting
Officials in Kenosha, Wisconsin, have put off implementing body cameras for police officers, even though leaders unanimously endorsed them more than three years ago.

KENOSHA, Wis. (WLS) -- Despite years of plans to implement police-worn body cameras in the Kenosha, city officials have not yet purchased or deployed the devices, citing video storage and budget concerns. Now, because the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha wasn't captured on police video, the only publicly available images of the incident are from distant videos taken by onlookers instead of from the officer who shot him or the others on scene.

Kenosha's police budget is $30 million a year and a body camera purchase has been in the works since 2017.

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"2017, we put it in the budget for the following year. But, the mayor and our city attorney weren't happy with some of the provisions that the state had in. As far as legalities for the body camera," said Rocco LaMacchia. He chairs the Kenosha Common Council's public safety committee and tells the I-Team he and others have pushed for three years to outfit police with body cameras.

175 Axon bodycams are in Kenosha's current plan, but they're not slated to be purchased until 2022.

"So as of now our police department, do not have body cameras, we have a police force of over 250 people," said LaMacchia

It isn't just the hardware: there would be a $145,000 annual storage cost.

"The big 800 pound gorilla in the back is storage of the data, how long does it have to be stored, and that's the expensive part. I know, money shouldn't come before human life. And what's going on in the city Kenosha is proof of that right now," LaMacchia told the I-Team. Tuesday, after touring the city where he grew up, he called Kenosha a war zone.

"For the first time in my life I was scared for my life. We had police officers with body armor. Coming to the front door to push these protesters, out of the police station. That's how bad it was last yesterday," he said.

For many police departments across the country, especially in smaller cities and less-populated regions, funding is still the key component standing in the way of body cameras. Generally, there are no laws that say police have to have them and their deployment across the country varies. But tonight, as Kenosha is learning the hard way, there may be a significant price to not having them.

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Michael Bell Sr. has been advocating for police reforms since officers in Kenosha fatally shot his 21-year-old son, Michael Bell Jr., in 2004. He has had success at the state level, helping in 2014 to push through a law requiring outside investigation when people die in the hands of law enforcement. But the retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel said officials in Kenosha have consistently failed to act on years of calls for police body cameras, which he likened to the "black box" on an airplane.

"I feel that there has been no movement," he said. "Every time they put (body camera funding) into the budget it's been kicked downstream."

But the ongoing storage costs are significant as cities face budget crises during the coronavirus pandemic and many critics push for cuts to police departments, said Steven Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Casstevens, the police chief in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, said he recently asked Vice President Mike Pence to make federal funding available for those costs, which many departments can't afford. Until now, grants have mostly covered the upfront costs of buying the equipment, he said.

"There's a demand to defund the police. Yet the flip side is that people are demanding body cameras," he said. "You can't have it both ways."

He said the cameras are helpful but have not turned out to be the game-changing reform that many had hoped. One reason: Some officers fail to activate their cameras during life-and-death encounters, he said.

An increasing number of studies also suggest the cameras do not change how often officers use force.

In Milwaukee, officers used slightly less force after starting to wear cameras at first but then returned quickly to normal levels, said Daniel Lawrence, a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., who studied their adoption.

Complaints against officers dropped significantly, but it's unclear whether that's due to improved interactions, citizens' fears of filing false claims or both, he said.

Body camera footage of the Blake shooting would have been important, but video from squad cars or other sources may be able to provide key perspectives for investigators, Lawrence said.

"The cameras themselves can provide a lot of insight into an officer's mindset before and after a shooting, but they may not be the crucial piece of evidence that makes or breaks a case," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.