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FOX 11 Investigates: Police body cameras

(WLUK) -- If you have an encounter with police, there's a pretty good chance you will be recorded by an officer's body camera. As more departments move towards body cameras, more issues are popping up.

But the new technology, isn't that new for some police agencies in Northeast Wisconsin.

"Body cameras at the Appleton Police Department have become a way of life," said assistant Appleton Police chief Todd Olm.

Appleton Police Captain Todd Freeman showed FOX 11 how his body camera works. He says after an incident; the video is uploaded to a secure website by an app on the officer's phone.

"This is just a game changer with its ease of use," Freeman said.

But Olm says cameras aren't perfect.

"Sometimes you miss things that have evidentiary value," he said.

That's what happened last May when Officer Stephanie Wiener was shot by a suspect who grabbed her gun during a confrontation. Police say Wiener turned her body camera on after she was shot.

"That's, in my world, certainly understandable because she was attacked suddenly. The last thing I want her to do when worrying about her own safety is to think, I have to click on my body camera," Olm said.

"Having it run constantly might be a better fit right now," said Emilio De Torre, director of youth and programs for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.

De Torre says officers should not be the ones who decide what to record.

"There are a lot of chronicled problems with turning them on. Officers will allege there's a high stress situation. I didn't have a chance to turn it on. I thought I turned it on. It didn't go on. There may be technological triggers in the same way that certain dash cams go on when you flick the lights on," De Torre said.

But Olm says there are some conversations that should not be recorded. According to Appleton's body camera policy, that could include some conversations about tactical plans with victims, or when police are talking with witnesses and informants.

Click here to read the Appleton Police Department's body camera policy.

"We don't necessarily want them on all the time," Olm said.

Appleton got its first body cameras in 2010. That was about dozen cameras. Five years later, the department expanded the program and ordered body cameras for all 84 patrol officers.

"It's become another piece of equipment that you don't dare go out on the road without. Our officers are so used to having them that they realize the value of having them," Olm said.

Body cameras come with a cost. Olm says Appleton will spend $500,000 over five years on the program. That cost included 84 cameras, two sets of replacement cameras over five years, new Tasers, and unlimited, online storage.

"There's costs associated with it, but you can't just look at one side of the balance sheet," Olm said.

In Green Bay, it's a different story.

"I think body cameras are a great idea," said Green Bay Police Chief Andrew Smith. "I'd love it if every officer had a body camera today."

But last year, Smith put plans to buy body cameras on hold.

"For me, right now, it seems like it's awful expensive," he said.

Smith says it would cost $1.2 million to outfit patrol officers with body cameras. That would include replacement cameras after three years and storage of the video. Smith is also concerned about costs down the road, including the potential for massive open records requests.

"I could conceive of somebody saying, hey I really like looking at police videos. I want all the police video that Officer Jones shot during 2016. We, as a police department, would be obligated to provide that," Smith said.

"Generally, the ACLU is not a proponent of hyper-surveillance in the country," De Torre said.

He says body cameras do have a place, especially when it comes to holding police officers accountable for their action.

"If you have strong policies governing the use of body cameras, then it can be an effective tool to be a check against abuse of power by law enforcement," De Torre said. "It can be the only real check against abuse of power."

De Torre says policies should protect the privacy of citizens. One way to do that, he says, is by limiting the amount of video police can save.

"What we'd like to see is that the majority of video is deleted relatively quickly. You flag the things that might be relevant to a case from either side, member of the public or an attorney or law enforcement can flag these certain things. And the rest of it can be deleted in a matter of months as opposed to years," he said.

Olm says every police record needs to be saved for seven years. But he says if video is not being used as evidence, the state has allowed Appleton police to delete it after 121 days or about four months.

"There's a lot of issues related to retaining these records," Olm said.

Green Bay's police chief says he'd like to see the state come up with guidelines on the issues surrounding body cameras before his department spends the money. Smith says he plans to re-visit the issue later this year.

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