A year ago we wrote an editorial on the rising police use of body cameras across the state and noted there was no consistent policy for Wisconsin’s 72 county sheriff’s offices and more than 500 law enforcement agencies for the handling and release of police videos.
We urged the state Legislature to “take up the matter in its next session, with an objective of striking the best balance between the public’s right to know and the use of discretion on this new frontier of police reporting.”
The Legislature took us up on that call, but regrettably it has advanced a proposed bill that would defeat the idea that use of such cameras and the public release of video footage would — and can — make police officers more responsible in their policing actions and prevent them from being accused falsely of acting inappropriately or even criminally.
This week the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety advanced a proposal that would exempt all footage taken by a police body camera from being subject to the state’s open records law — except for video involving injuries, deaths, arrests and searches.
But, according to the Associated Press account of the meeting, “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 means if Racine police were involved in shooting on Monument Square at high noon the footage would be made public.
But if it happened in a residence, or perhaps a “private” business place, or maybe a “private” backyard, the public would not be able to see what that footage showed unless police went to every individual involved and got a signed release.
That essentially digs a deep dark hole where the footage would be buried. No matter if the video showed police acted appropriately and were justified in their actions. No matter if they were wrong.
Tongues would wag, rumors would spread and, either way, the situation would become inflamed without the release of body cam footage that would show exactly what happened.
You might as well throw public accountability into the hole with the body cam and bury that as well.
The GOP bill which passed committee on an 8-4 party-line vote was authored by state Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, who said the primary goal was protecting the privacy of people unwittingly captured on police body cameras. Kremer 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.
We share Kremer’s concerns over that type of usage of police videos, but there are many other ways to address that including the mechanical blurring of images to protect the identities of witnesses and innocent parties. Or, the release of video could be approved by a judge who applies a balancing test between the privacy issue and the public interest in release.
But the requirement of having police get permission from victims, witnesses and even property owners before a video can be made public is so steep that it would deep-six almost all such videos. You would have a better chance of digging up a Hope Diamond in your backyard garden.
We have great confidence in our police officers. They perform a sometimes dangerous job day in and day out under often difficult circumstances as they deal not only with criminals, but citizens on very bad days. We believe that 90-plus percent of the time their actions will stand up under the scrutiny of police body cam recordings and we believe the release of those videos will only increase public confidence in their officers.
This bill would not do that. Instead of putting to rest rumors and false stories, it would allow public debate to fester and doubts to arise.
We urge the Legislature to take another look at these issues and come back with a bill that better balances citizen privacy with the need for public accountability.