MADISON, Wis. - It would be more difficult for the public to view footage taken on police body cameras under a Republican-backed bill that won approval from a Wisconsin Assembly committee Tuesday over objections from Democrats and open records advocates.
Opponents say the measure, which has support from law enforcement agencies across the state, will worsen relations between the police and communities they serve. Supporters say it will protect the privacy of people captured on body camera footage while also establishing statewide guidelines.
Thirty other states have laws related to police body cameras. Of those, 18 address how data captured on the cameras are handled under open records laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Wisconsin Assembly's criminal justice committee passed the bill on an 8-4 vote, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he was generally supportive of the measure and it could come up for a vote on passage as soon as Nov. 9. It must also clear the Senate and be signed by Gov. Scott Walker before becoming law.
The bill does not require police departments to use body cameras, but Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney testified at an earlier hearing that he has refused to equip his deputies with cameras because there are no guidelines like those proposed to protect the public's privacy.
Under Rep. Jesse Kremer's proposal, all footage taken from a police body camera would be exempt from the open records law except for video involving injuries, deaths, arrests and searches. But if footage was taken in a place where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a home, police would have to obtain permission from any victims, witnesses and property owners before the video could be released to the public.
That requirement is too onerous, public records advocates charge, and will result in making it nearly impossible for the public to see video that requires that approval before it's released.
"This is a terrible bill that if passed will deny access to videos the public is paying for," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which represents newspapers, broadcasters and other media outlets. "It will even keep police from releasing video that backs up their accounts. Let's hope the defenders of open government can push back and keep this bad bill from becoming law."
Democratic Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa said that while the bill was introduced "under the guise of privacy," it will destroy trust between police and African American communities.
"A bill like this takes us back, way back," Zamarripa said.
Kremer, of Kewaskum, said just because video is taken by police and is a government record doesn't mean it has to be released to the public where it can be broadcast on the evening news or posted on social media. He said his primary goal was protecting the privacy of people unwittingly captured on the body cameras.
There's been a push nationally in the wake of shootings involving police to require more officers to wear body cameras to help determine what happens in those cases. The footage can end speculation about an officer's actions, stoking or quelling public outrage in high-profile, racially charged shootings.
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