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View from around the state: Trial shows need for cop cameras in Madison

— From the Wisconsin State Journal

Madison should pay close attention to the Milwaukee trial of a former police officer in the fatal shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith.

Body cameras on the police who chased Smith from a traffic stop last fall provided the key video evidence leading to a charge of first-degree reckless homicide.

Had the same incident occurred here in Madison — or any other Wisconsin community without cameras on police uniforms — the officer almost certainly would not have been charged. That’s because the video images would not exist.

Instead, the public and court system would have to rely heavily on police accounts of what happened.

That’s not the case in Milwaukee, which has wisely equipped its patrol officers with body cameras.

Footage from cameras on former Milwaukee Police Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown and a fellow officer show a foot pursuit after a traffic stop. Smith runs while carrying a gun and is shot in the arm while throwing his weapon over a fence. He’s shot a second time in the chest less than two seconds later. The entire encounter from the start of the chase lasts 12 seconds.

Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm calls the video footage “the most essential evidence” in the ongoing trial. He faults Heaggan-Brown for the second shot, just after Smith had tossed his handgun.

But Heaggan-Brown’s lawyers say he thought in that split second Smith was reaching for another weapon in his waistband, and a police trainer will testify that officers are taught to assume a suspect with a gun is likely to have another weapon.

Both Heaggan-Brown and Smith are black and lived in the same neighborhood where the fatal shooting occurred. It prompted two nights of protests, including rocks hurled at officers, and the burning of eight businesses and a police car.

A jury could decide the fate of Heaggan-Brown, 25, this week.

The body camera footage may not definitively settle what happened or why. But it provides a neutral and far more clear view of the events leading up to Smith’s death than conflicting testimony from participants and witnesses.

Madison has had several disputed police shootings in recent years, none of which led to criminal charges against officers. That could be because the officers were acting appropriately. Or it could be that clear evidence didn’t exist to show misconduct.

In either case, police cameras have been shown to improve the behavior of both police and the public, according to a federal task force on modern policing. Complaints against officers tend to fall when they wear cameras, as does use of force.

Some Madison City Council members have claimed the cameras are too expensive. But a manufacturer has offered the city a free trial. Some aldermen fear the cameras could violate people’s privacy, but Wisconsin’s open records law already balances privacy against the public good before video is released.

Some critics worry cameras will somehow hurt domestic abuse victims or immigrants. But the leading advocacy group for battered women has endorsed police cameras, and Latino leaders who recently met with the State Journal editorial board didn’t object to them.

Madison should adopt this relatively simple technology to get to the truth of controversial police encounters.

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