News 8 Investigates - Watching the Watchers

News 8 Investigates - Watching the...

LA CROSSE, Wis. - Police brutality cases across the country have made headlines in recent years. Those cases have some communities calling for police officers to wear body cameras.

The La Crosse Police Department started using body cameras nine months ago. But unlike police departments in big cities like Saint Paul or Baton Rouge, where the actions of the PD have been called into question in the past year, La Crosse has almost no complaints of excessive force.

As part of a News 8 Investigation, the La Crosse Police Department released the numbers below, which show two excessive force complaints in the last five years.

Excessive Force Complaints

Year                   # of complaints

2012                         1 (Found Not Sustained)

2013                         1 (Found Unfounded)

2014                         0

2015                         0

2016                         0

*Source: La Crosse Police Department

The 2012 complaint was found "not sustained," which means there was insufficient evidence to either prove or disprove the allegations. The 2013 complaint was ruled "unfounded" which means an internal investigation found the allegations false.

The La Crosse Police Department says its officers started wearing body cameras to provide increased transparency for the benefit of the police force and the community.

However, Capt. Jason Melby, with the La Crosse Police Department, says what may seem like a simple solution for more transparency has some complex ramifications.

“The head is on a swivel,” said Melby. ”The chest is not.”

Body cameras have a limited view.

“One of the aspects that is a false presumption with having a body camera is that now we've got everything,” said Melby. “We're going to see everything and know everything the officer is doing.”

Downtown La Crosse Neighborhood Resource Officer Alex Burg is one of six NROs who wear a body camera. Burg agrees that there are limitations with the camera.

“There can be things going on behind you, to the left or right that the body cam doesn’t have visual of,” said Burg.

And, of course, this piece of equipment does not have senses which are vital to this profession.

“As far as general police work goes, smelling intoxicants on drivers or other people ... you can pick that up,” said Downtown La Crosse Neighborhood Resource Officer Joel Miller.

Another downside of the cameras involve technical or human errors.

“There is no way we're going to dance around the fact that, at times, there are officers that go out there and work, and maybe due to human error maybe didn't get the mic turned on,” said Melby, “or reached down and tried to flip the switch and didn't get the switch flipped.”

“Also officer safety is always No. 1,” said Burg. “So, if I'm sitting in my car and somebody comes on me quick and starts attacking me, I'm not going to think, ‘I should probably turn my body camera on right now.’ You'll react accordingly to the situation.”

How the public will react if an officer does not have video but is wearing a camera is unknown.

“Does it mean that what the officer did was automatically wrong? Unfortunately, I would say, there's some within our society that would say, ‘Well, if it's not on camera then it can't be factual,’” said Melby.

Aside from the potential unintended consequences, wearing body cameras is supported by the La Crosse PD.

“We did it because we think it's right for our community, and we think it can be an effective tool for our agency as well,” said Melby.

The body cameras go mostly unnoticed by the public.

However, when they are noticed or pointed out, the cameras have defused heated situations.

The cameras have also helped clear officers who have been accused of wrongdoing.

The same policy that governs the squad cameras now governs the body cams. You can view the Video/Recording Devices Policy for the La Crosse Police Department in Chapter 18.16.

Anytime an officer has official police contact, the officer should turn on his or her camera.

That video is public record and, according to state law, has to be saved for 120 days.

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