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Law enforcement backs standards for body camera videos

Law enforcement officers have lined up in support of a bill laying out standards for handling video from body cameras, saying it would protect privacy while encouraging more departments to use the technology.

But media and free speech advocates worried the bill's language is too restrictive and called on lawmakers to retool it to make footage more readily available.

Under Rep. Jesse Kremer's bill, law enforcement would only be able to release body camera footage in case of a death, alleged physical injury, custodial arrest or a search during a temporary questioning.

Additionally, victims and witnesses would also need to sign off on the release of the footage if it occurs in a location "with an expectation of privacy," including homes and apartments, prior to it being handed over to those who request it.

Kremer, R-Kewaskum, told Assembly Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee members at an Oct. 5 hearing that the language helps protect the public form the "thin ice" new technological developments have "placed us on" in terms of Fourth Amendment protections.

"The release of virtually every video requested by the media or the public can create a chilling effect for tipsters, victims and the public if there is concern that their face or the inside of their home may be displayed on the evening news," he said.

Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney said the bill would help law enforcement agencies that currently don't have any written policies on body cameras, which leaves "many gray areas around how footage that can be highly personal for victims can be treated."

And Mahoney noted while his county board has signed off on buying body cameras for all his deputies, he said he wouldn't approve implementation of the technology until protections like those outlined in the bill were in place.

Blue Mound Police Chief Andrew Rose agreed. At his smaller agency, he noted there was some hesitation surrounding the cost of the body cameras and storing the footage.

"Everyone wants body cameras, but the biggest thing is the record retention time, how much storage, the cost," he said. "This bill helps us define what we need to do and helps us in budgeting and planning."

While media and free speech representatives said they supported consistent statewide policies on body cameras, they stressed the need for less burdensome procedures surrounding the release of footage.

Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders said the wording could jeopardize the public's right to know about the "actions of police in certain critical situations."

And he questioned the wisdom of getting permission from all witnesses and victims in the case of a police encounter at something like a college fraternity party, where there could be dozens of people captured in the footage.

Kyle Geissler, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association director of operations and public affairs, agreed, calling that process "cumbersome and inefficient."

Lueders also argued that it should be possible for someone requesting body camera footage to "make the argument that the video should be released even if you can't track down every single person."

Rep. André Jacque, R-De Pere, said he could agree with the idea to "perhaps give additional discretion to law enforcement in terms of what can be released."

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