Wisconsin Bill Could Stand Between Public, Police Body Camera Footage

While proponents of the legislation argue it would protect the rights of victims, critics say it goes too far.

by Patrick Marley, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / November 10, 2017
Shutterstock

(TNS) -- MADISON, Wis. – Police body camera footage would be kept from the public in many cases, under a bill the state Assembly is debating Thursday.

Rep. Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) said Assembly Bill 351 will protect the rights of victims, witnesses and ordinary citizens who encounter the police.

"We've been giving up a lot of privacy with the technology that's out there, especially since 9/11. We feel like we're kind of treading on thin ice as it relates to the Fourth Amendment," said Kremer, referring to the constitutional provision protecting people from unreasonable searches.

But critics said the bill will too often keep the public in the dark, preventing people from getting a clear view of crime in their communities and how the officers are responding to it.

"This is a bad bill that if passed will deny access to videos the public is paying for, based on category and not common sense,” Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, wrote in an email to the group's supporters last week. “It will even keep police from releasing video that backs up their accounts. It does nothing to respect or protect the public's right to see these videos, undercutting the whole reason for their existence."

Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) said she believed the state should set clear rules at a time when police departments are increasingly equipping their officers with body cameras.

But Kremer's bill goes too far, she said.

"It's going to make it harder for the public to get body camera footage that they're paying for," she said.

The bill would not require departments to use body cameras, but sets policies they must abide by if they do.

Under the bill, most footage would be kept from the public. Footage would be available under the state’s open records law if it was taken in a public place and involved a death, physical harm, an arrest or a search.

If death, physical harm, arrests or searches occurred in a place where someone would ordinarily expect privacy, the footage could be released only if all victims and witnesses agreed to that in writing. The owner of the property where the police encounter occurred would also have to sign off on its public release.

Police departments would have to keep footage for at least 120 days and if used in a prosecution would have to be retained until the final disposition of the case.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) told reporters the public shouldn’t have access to victims who are in their homes or who have just been traumatized by a sexual assault or other crime.

“I think there are just certain things that you should have the ability to say, ‘That should not be open to anybody who’s curious,” he said.

If passed Thursday, the bill would go to the Senate, which like the Assembly is controlled by Republicans.

The Assembly is voting on dozens of other bills Thursday, its last session day for 2017. Both houses of the Legislature will return in January for their spring session.

Marsy's Law. On an 81-10 vote, the Assembly followed the lead of the Senate and passed Senate Joint Resolution 53 to begin the long process of amending the state constitution to give crime victims more rights.

Both houses will need to take up the measure again in 2019 or 2020. If approved again then, the issue would then go to voters in a referendum for final approval.

The measure, known as Marsy's Law, passed the Senate 29-4 on Tuesday.

The measure would give victims new rights and elevate ones they already have from state law to the constitution. By putting the protections in the constitution, victims will fare better when their rights conflict with those of defendants, backers of the measure said.

"We've gotten to the point where some of the victims are left behind," said Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville), one of the bill's chief sponsors.

Under the proposal, victims could refuse to be interviewed by defense attorneys. Critics argued that would conflict with the rights of defendants to confront their accusers and receive a fair trial.

Lead pipes. Senate Bill 48 would help homeowners and water utilities replace lead pipes, an issue made infamous by the recent lead poisoning of children in Flint, Mich.

The measure would allow utilities to use money from ratepayers to give grants and loans to homeowners to help pay for replacing more than 170,000 lead service lines to their houses.

The Senate unanimously passed the measure last week but Assembly leaders said they planned to make changes to it that would limit the maximum size of a grant to half the cost of replacing a line. That amendment would also require water utilities to offer the same discounts to all of its customers.

Because it is making changes, the bill will have to go back to the Senate before it can be sent to GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

©2017 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

NEW ON THE PODCAST

Tech Startups Can Help Revitalize Both Ends of Your Ballot