Wisconsin Assembly approves restrictions on releasing body camera footage

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Laurel White and Shawn Johnson

Wisconsin Public Radio

The state Assembly voted Thursday to limit public access to some police body camera videos and to scale back a proposal aimed at helping homeowners replace lead pipes.

The Assembly also approved measures to add rights for crime victims to the state constitution and legalize industrial hemp farming in the state.

Supporters of the body camera bill argue it will preserve the privacy of crime victims.

"There is no reason that a sexual assault victim — a woman raped, left for dead in an alley, completely naked — should be expected to relive the worst day of her life, possibly for an eternity, in the public eye as that law enforcement call for service video is replayed for the entire courtroom," said state Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, the bill's sponsor.

Under the bill,  body camera footage would be confidential and not available for public access unless it shows death, injury, arrest or search during temporary questioning. Even if it meets those standards, if the video was recorded in a place where people have a "reasonable expectation of privacy," release would require consent of victims, witnesses or the owner of the property shown in the recording.

A variety of police organizations, including the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association and the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, support the measure, arguing it makes it easier for them to establish policies for releasing footage.

Opponents to the legislation include the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, who argue the bill is a harmful step away from transparency and could have consequences for relationships between police and community members.

Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, argued body camera footage helps build trust between police and community members.

"Having a public record of public interactions with the police improves all of our lives, whether you’re law enforcement or a constituent," Zamarripa said.

The measure passed on a voice vote and now moves to the state Senate.  

Bill Seeks To Help With Lead Line Replacements

The Assembly also passed a scaled-back version of a bill that would help homeowners replace lead drinking water pipes.

The state Senate voted unanimously last month to let local water utilities create grant or loan programs to replace lead pipes. Water utility rates could go up citywide to pay for the programs.

The version of the bill that passed the Assembly on Thursday would only let grant programs cover half the cost of lead lateral replacement instead of two-thirds.

"The goal is to make sure that every homeowner has skin in the game and that it's not just a gift from government versus those who've already made the decision to replace it and perhaps paid 100 percent on their own," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

The amended plan would also require that any loans or grants be the same regardless of a homeowner's income.

While the plan passed on a unanimous voice vote, Democrats said the changes made it worse.

"This bill does some good," said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. "But my gosh, we should be taking this issue so much more seriously."

The Senate would need to agree to the Assembly changes before the bill can go to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk.

There are at least 176,000 lead service lines that connect public water mains to Wisconsin homes, according to an estimate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Chamber Passes Legislation For 'Victim's Bill Of Rights'

Assembly lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to add a "crime victim's bill of rights" to the Wisconsin Constitution.

The measure is part of a national effort known as Marsy's Law, which is named after a California college student who was killed by her boyfriend in 1983.

It would add 17 victim rights to the state constitution, including the right to refuse an interview or deposition requested by the accused.

Critics argued that provision would likely violate the U.S. Constitution.

"It's unconstitutional because it infringes on the right of confrontation," said Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee. "The 6th Amendment right that we have, that we've given people as defendants in criminal cases, to confront their accusers."

Defense attorneys made similar arguments at the plan's public hearing.

Backers said it merely added protections to the state constitution that already exist in state law.

"You know, I understand that defense attorneys oppose this because that's their job to work with defendants," said Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville. "But we've gotten to the point where some of the victims are getting left behind."

The plan passed on an 81-10 vote. It passed the Senate earlier this week.

Because it's a proposed constitutional amendment, it would need to pass the full Legislature again next session and be approved by voters.

Legislation Legalizes Industrial Hemp Farming

The Assembly voted unanimously to legalize industrial hemp farming in Wisconsin.

Under the bill, Wisconsin farmers could apply for a state permit to grow the crop. The federal government now allows such permits, as long as farmers participate in research programs.

People who have drug convictions wouldn't be eligible for the permit, and plants couldn't contain more than 0.3 percent THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Supporters argue hemp, which was once a popular crop in Wisconsin, would be profitable for Wisconsin farmers. Hemp is used in a variety of commercial products, including granola bars, lotions, and rope.

Kremer, who sponsored the bill, said it will will provide an economic boost to rural parts of the state.

"It's not a silver bullet — it's something that can give hope to our farmers, though, who have been decimated this past year with the grassland situation and the crop prices," Kremer said.

The Senate passed the measure unanimously Tuesday. It now goes to Walker’s desk for his signature.

Other Assembly Action:

Thursday was the final floor session of the year for the Assembly. Other measures passed included:

  • A bill requiring truck drivers be trained in identifying and preventing human trafficking. The bill passed on a unanimous vote. It now moves to the Senate.
  • A bill requiring state administrative rules, which are written by state agencies and cover things like workplace safety and environmental regulations, to expire every nine years, unless renewed by a legislative committee. Supporters say the change will help eliminate unnecessary rules, while opponents argue it could be harmful to necessary rules. The bill passed on a vote of 60-33. It moves to the Senate.
  • A bill that would eliminate continuing education requirements for cosmetologists and barbers in Wisconsin. The measure also eliminates a requirement that applicants for a cosmetology license in the state have 4,000 hours of experience. Supporters say the changes will make it easier for people from other states to work in Wisconsin, while opponents argue it might allow people who aren't qualified to work in the state. The bill passed on a voice vote. It has also passed the Senate and now goes to Walker’s desk.

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