The contentious issue of police use of body cameras and the release of video footage was center stage recently in Madison.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on compromise legislation created and endorsed by both state law enforcement agencies and media representatives that—while not requiring police departments in the state to use body cameras—would set statewide guidelines on how long video footage of a police-citizen encounter would have to be stored and generally give the public access to most police body cam footage under the state Open Records law.
Under the proposed law, in instances where footage showed minors, victims of sensitive or violent crimes or people in places where they would ordinarily expect privacy—such as a home or other dwelling, police agencies would have to determine if the public interest in making the material available outweighed the privacy concerns of those depicted in the video. If footage was released in those cases, police agencies could blur the faces of minors, victims and those who had an expectation of privacy.
It’s a good bill which balances the rights of privacy with the need for public accountability and transparency in both monitoring the actions of police officers in often difficult encounters with citizens in very bad situations and at the same time protecting them from false accusations of misconduct.
The bill has the backing of state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and is expected to get a Senate vote in October. We would urge Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who has thus far not indicated his position on it, to get behind the legislation and shepherd it through the Assembly.
The proposed bill is important legislation that would give Wisconsin consistency in how police body cameras are used instead of the current patchwork quilt of varying regulations from one municipality and police agency to the next.
Currently, it is not known how many police agencies in the state have their officers equipped with body cameras, but some estimates say that about 60 police departments out of about 500 in the state use them in one form or another.
It is not a perfect piece of legislation, but it is a vast improvement on previous tries by the Legislature and can be tweaked as time goes along. Nor does the bill address the financial costs for municipalities and police agencies. The body cams themselves have gone down in costs, but the storage of police video footage can be expensive.
We would urge the Legislature and the governor to consider helping municipalities and police agencies develop their police body cam capabilities with support in future budgets.
Police body cams are not a cure-all in every police-citizen encounter, but they can and do shed light on difficult—even fatal—encounters and help get to the truth.