The Milwaukee Police Department’s body-worn camera (BWC) program began in October 2015 as a response to strained police relations in the city’s communities of color that were exacerbated by several highly public police shootings of black men in Milwaukee and across the country.
The Urban Institute surveyed Milwaukee community members in April 2016, September 2017, and July 2018 about their attitudes toward the police department and its BWC program, as part of a rigorous, independent evaluation.
This brief uses community survey data to examine how strongly community members from various racial and demographic groups believe MPD officers were respectful, as well as the role BWCs played in building community relations and holding officers accountable.
Public perceptions of the Milwaukee Police Department’s body-worn camera program
Survey findings indicate that public knowledge of the BWC program grew substantially each year and most community members held positive views of the program and the Milwaukee Police Department. Yet these views varied over the years and by key demographic characteristics.
Here are some key takeaways:
- Awareness of the BWC program among survey respondents increased as more officers were equipped with cameras. Across all demographic groups, awareness that MPD officers were equipped with BWCs grew steadily from wave one to wave three. This is a necessary step for improving perceptions of transparency.
- By and large, people in Milwaukee held positive opinions about the police department and its BWC program. Most community members believed MPD officers “frequently” or “almost always” treat people with dignity and respect. A large majority of community members held high opinions about the potential for BWCs to improve police-community relationships and keep officers accountable for their behaviors.
- Fewer black respondents across all three survey waves viewed MPD officers as respectful or believed BWCs could improve police-community relations and officer accountability. This is consistent with national surveys, which have found that black community members are less optimistic than their white counterparts that BWCs can reduce racial tensions or increase trust in the police.
Police departments must continue to revise their policies and fine-tune their BWC programs to maximize transparency and accountability and broaden public support, particularly among communities of color.
Departments with BWCs should consider these policy recommendations to achieve those goals:
- Departments should standardize, expedite, and publicly disseminate their process for releasing body-worn camera footage. In most localities, the public can request and access BWC footage through an open records request. But this process is often delayed when the police department or district attorney is using the footage for an ongoing investigation. The need to protect an investigation must be carefully weighed against releasing footage within a reasonable time frame.
- The process of releasing footage must be consistent in all cases. Transparency and accountability will be compromised if the public believes departments are quicker to release footage that justifies officers’ behaviors than footage that depicts police misconduct. It is essential that departments formalize and carefully follow their policy for releasing BWC footage.
- Departments should clearly communicate their use of BWCs and the footage they produce. Departments must describe their process of and policy for reviewing footage to investigate police misconduct and substantiate or refute complaints from community members. They should also assess and communicate to the public whether BWCs have helped promote civility and professionalism during community interactions. By proactively describing the many uses of body-worn camera footage, departments can create a more complete picture of how BWCs affect police practices, further promoting transparency and accountability.