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Wisconsin Assembly voting on limiting police body-cam access



Footage would be exempt from Wisconsin’s open records law with exceptions 

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Legislature is set to vote Thursday on a Republican-backed proposal limiting the public’s access to footage from police body cameras, despite objections from open records advocates who say it will quash the public’s ability to access certain video.

The bill has the support of law enforcement agencies across the state. Supporters say the goal is to institute guidelines and privacy protections for members of the public unwittingly captured on police cameras.

Under the proposal, all footage from a police body camera would be exempt from Wisconsin’s 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 their home, police would have to obtain permission from any victims, witnesses and property owners before it could be released to the public.

Opponents say that will result in most video recorded under those circumstances being kept secret. This will worsen the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve, Democratic lawmakers who don’t have the votes to stop the measure argue.

“The whole point of these body cameras is undercut by this stupid bill,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which represents newspapers, broadcasters and other media outlets. “This bill is poorly worded and will result in the denial of access to records that even the police would like to release.”

Body camera footage should be treated like dashcam video, police reports and other records that are presumed to be open unless the agency determines that the harm in releasing it outweighs the public interest in seeing it, Lueders said.

The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association said that the bill should be changed to ensure the public has timely access to body camera video when privacy concerns are at stake, but it supports placing discretion with law enforcement agencies or establishing some sort of judicial review.

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.

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.

Wisconsin’s bill is supported by a wide array of groups representing police, as well as the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin is registered against it. So is YWCA Madison.

The bill must also pass the Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker before taking effect. Both the Senate and Assembly are controlled by Republicans.

Wisconsin’s proposal does not require police departments to use body cameras. But its backers say establishing the privacy guidelines will lead to more agencies feeling comfortable equipping officers with cameras.

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