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police civic engagement

December 21, 2016

Topic: Research

Madison, Wisconsin, body-camera pilot seeks public input

The City of Madison, Wisconsin, asked for public input on a controversial issue of the use of body-worn cameras by local police. Katherine J. Cramer reveals insights from the practitioners who conducted the process in ‘Equity through Learning to Listen: The Case of Public Discussion on Body-Worn Cameras in Madison, Wisconsin’. 

Despite Madison’s progressive reputation, writes Cramer, it also has some of the most troubling racial inequalities in the US. Following nation-wide protests against police shootings – and the death of a local youth – Madison’s leaders sought community input on the pilot run for local police use of body-worn cameras. They commissioned Colleen Butler (Racial Justice Director, YWCA Madison) and Jacquelyn Boggess (Executive Director, Center for Family and Policy Practice) to conduct and report on community focus groups. Cramer reflects on their experiences as facilitators of this project.

The author mines four lessons from Butler and Boggess’ insights on the deliberations. She finds that the intentional exclusion of the usual (mostly white) participants in such discussions can create space for more diverse views. Second, disenfranchised people may not expect their contributions to affect policy, but can be motivated to participate by the opportunity to be heard.

Third, these conversations can have different meanings for participants with different levels of privilege. In the focus groups, people of colour spoke on survival and justice, while white voices looked at democratic rights. Finally, attempts to  give marginalized people a say in democratic conversations may need advocacy to ensure that they are heard. This may mean additional campaigning to compel leaders to use public input in their  decision-making.

Through Cramer’s research, the Madison deliberations show that public discussions can reveal complex viewpoints different from the yes/no positions that participants may be expected to take in relation to policy. Decision-makers will have to demonstrate that they are willing and able to grasp these perspectives, writes Cramer.

Professor Katherine J. Cramer is Director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service and Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Photo: Patrick Finnegan/Flickr/cc