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Lawmakers quibble over Milwaukee police video evidence snafu

An informational hearing Wednesday on the recent crash of the Milwaukee Police Department’s video recording system yielded few answers.

Lawmakers said they wanted to find out what had happened and to discover ways to prevent the mishap from recurring on a larger scale, said state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and Rep. Joe Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, who presided over the hearing.

“People need to know what’s happening,” said Wanggaard. “Scary things are happening in Milwaukee, and they need answers.”

The Milwaukee Police Department’s video system became inaccessible Jan. 2 after three disk drives failed, according to a Police Department news release. A vendor has been hired to recover the recordings at a cost of $49,500. The department is meanwhile making use of a stopgap method of recording police interrogations.

Among those invited to the hearing were Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, as well as Mike Crivello, who is president of the Milwaukee Police Association.

In the end, only Crivello appeared.

At the hearing, Democratic lawmakers, a majority of them from Milwaukee, objected to the proceedings, often talking over one another. Chief among their sources of concern was the absence of many of the people who, they said, could provide real answers. They also pointed out that state law does not require the use of video evidence except in juvenile court.

Crivello testified that he has heard from officers that hundreds or thousands of cases could be affected. He could not say how many recordings had been lost but did say that the video-recording system had exhibited previous “stutterings” that had prevented offices from retrieving interrogations.

Still, the most recent failure has affected only seven cases, according to the release from the police department, and the suspects in those cases have already been charged using other information and evidence.

The State Public Defender’s Milwaukee Trial Office noticed earlier in the year that the police department was using a different system to record interrogations, said Randy Kraft, communications director for the State Public Defender, in an email Tuesday. He said the agency is monitoring the situation and cases involved.

Wanggaard said Wednesday that he had heard from judges around the state that the crash could cause discovery problems in cases that have been recently settled or pleaded.

But Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers said Tuesday there have been few to no consequences for Milwaukee County courts. He said he has not heard judges in his district expressing concerns about the malfunction. There were, Kremers said, a small number of cases adjourned temporarily to give the prosecutor more time to obtain evidence.

“No cases have been tossed or given away,” he said.

Frank Gimbel, a criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee, said he agrees with Kremers’ assessment of the effects on the county’s courts, saying he has not heard concerns from his fellow attorneys. He said that criminal defense lawyers sometimes cite a lack of video evidence in the hope that doing so will bolster their clients’ cases.

Until a few years ago, Kremers said, the police department did not record interrogations. Moreover, most prosecutors do not depend on video evidence alone to build their cases.

“Even if a bunch or recordings were lost and destroyed, that would not stop prosecutions from going forward,” he said. “It’s possible to try cases without the video evidence. It’s been done for years.”

But Kremers did not dismiss the importance of a hearing.

“It’s better if we have videotaped statements,” he said, “so we need to make sure we have a system that works.”

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