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UW-Madison police body camera

UW-Madison police wear body cameras, as photographed here, and have released video to help the public better understand arrests and other incidents. 

State lawmakers understandably want to protect the privacy of witnesses and victims who appear in video images captured by police body cameras.

But Wisconsin’s open records law already does that. When a citizen asks a police agency to release footage from a police uniform camera, police can balance the public interest in seeing those images against the harm that might result to individuals involved. Police can blur or edit out certain parts of the video, similar to what they can do with paper records.

And then, if the person requesting the video doesn’t agree with a police agency’s decision not to release part or all of what was filmed, that citizen can ask a judge to review that decision.

This system has worked well for government documents of all sorts, including cameras mounted on the dashboards of police cars.

But with more and more police agencies putting cameras on the uniforms of officers, more and more images of sensitive situations are being recorded. Police agencies are understandably nervous about what to release and what to restrict.

So providing law enforcement with guidance from the state makes sense. So does requiring training.

Those parts of Rep. Jesse Kremer’s bodycam bill make sense. But in seeking to fix hypothetical invasions of privacy without evidence of them actually occurring, the Kewaskum Republican’s bill goes much too far in restricting public access to video that — thanks to its existence and public release — is improving public trust in police, reducing the use of force, and decreasing complaints against officers.

Assembly Bill 351 would exempt most bodycam video from the open records law, meaning the public couldn’t watch images of many controversial encounters — even if doing so would definitively settle what happened.

Only video related to deaths, injuries, arrests and searches could be released under the open records law. And if images were captured in someone’s private home or elsewhere where privacy is reasonably expected, police would have to seek permission from all victims, witnesses and property owners before the video could be publicly released.

That would create piles of busy work for officers, as well as long delays for those seeking images of controversial interactions. Imagine trying to track down everyone who appears in a police video taken at a house party, for example.

Another risk is that people accusing police of misconduct could block release of video proving their accusations wrong. That wouldn’t be fair to police. And if police misconduct did occur, police would have a much easier time suppressing the video evidence.

AB 351 needs more thought and respect for the public’s right to know what its government agents, including police, are doing.

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