Here’s an easy win for the Republican-run state Senate, if only its leaders would allow a vote before adjourning this spring.
Senate Bill 50 would set reasonable guidelines for police agencies on how to use body cameras and when to release footage to the public. It also would require written policies and training.
The issue had been controversial two years ago, when some law enforcement officials sought broad exemptions from Wisconsin’s open records law. Media groups and the State Journal editorial board fought the unnecessary restrictions, insisting on public access to video of disputed police encounters.
The Legislature wisely created a study committee to research and develop a compromise, which resulted in SB 50. The proposal has drawn strong backing from newspapers and broadcasters as well as police chiefs, patrol officers, sheriffs and deputies. In fact, the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety — led by former police officer and Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine — voted unanimously in support last fall. Nobody registered in opposition at a public hearing.
So passage is all but assured in the full Senate, assuming a vote is scheduled before the Legislature adjourns its regular business for the year.
SB 50 doesn’t require police agencies to buy or equip patrol officers with cameras. That’s up to individual communities.
But for all of the modern police agencies that do use body cameras across Wisconsin, video images from most incidents would have to be retained for at least 120 days. And if the footage involved death, injury, arrests, searches or use of force, the video would be preserved until cases were resolved.
Yet the bill does make accommodations for privacy. Footage of minors, victims of sensitive or violent crimes and people in places with “reasonable expectations of privacy” could be withheld unless a balancing test determined the public interest outweighed those concerns. Even then, police could blur faces in videos to protect identities.
SB 50 is the result of hard work and compromise by lawmakers from both parties, open-government advocates and law enforcement. It demands action so more agencies adopt police cameras with a clear understanding of how they will be used and when images will become public.
Cameras on patrol officers are neutral observers that can show what really happened when an incident is in dispute. Police body cameras have reduced complaints against officers and, in some cases, contradicted police claims and led to justice for the wrongly accused.
The Senate should quickly advance this sensible compromise so more police agencies across Wisconsin use their cameras in appropriate and consistent ways to improve public safety.
— Wisconsin State Journal