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La Crosse Police being sued by news organization for refusing open records request

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A news organization based out of Madison is suing the La Crosse Police Department for refusing a public records request.

The Badger Project is seeking records from the department over a former officer who, the news site says resigned in lieu of being terminated in 2019.

That officer then went on to work for another department, but later resigned there as well, but in good standing, according to the Department of Justice. He is not currently working in law enforcement, the Badger Project reported.

The records request was made in April. He was denied the request in May. La Crosse Police stated “internal disciplinary” as the reason the records weren’t turned over.

WIZM will have more details Thursday, after speaking with La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds.

The lawsuit may stem from another story by Cameron noting that nearly 200 law enforcement officers currently employed in Wisconsin were fired or forced out from previous jobs in law enforcement, resigned in lieu of termination or quit before completion of an internal investigation.

State law says all public records are open to inspection, unless the government agency can point to a specific exemption in state law.

The Wisconsin Transparency Project, a law firm that focuses on the state’s open records and meetings laws, filed the lawsuit on Sep. 30 at the La Crosse County Circuit Court on behalf of The Badger Project’s managing editor Peter Cameron.

“The (La Crosse Police Department) is making things up, citing to an exemption that doesn’t exist,” Tom Kamenick, president of the Wisconsin Transparency Project and Cameron’s attorney, told the Badger Project. “There is no blanket exemption for records of internal investigations, and court after court has rejected the argument that government employers can keep details of their investigations secret.”

When asked for comment, La Crosse Police Department Assistant Chief Jason Melby referred the Badger Project to the city attorney’s office, which had not responded to multiple requests, according to the news organization.

The lawsuit seeks the release of those documents. The La Crosse Police Department would pay legal fees, plus potential statutory damages if it lost the suit, according to state law.

“It’s unbelievable that in this day and age, police departments still think they can shield the wrongdoing of their officers from the public,” Kamenick said. “Police officers exercise great authority over the citizenry, and they must be held responsible to the public for their actions. ‘Trust us, we’ll handle it’ is no longer an acceptable response to allegations of wrongdoing.”

Host of WIZM's La Crosse Talk PM | University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate | Hometown: Greenville, Wis | Avid noonball basketball player and sand volleyballer in La Crosse

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