© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Could expanding law enforcement privacy threaten public transparency in Wisconsin?

Analyzing how police transparency and accountability could be disrupted in Wisconsin.
Stock Adobe
Analyzing how police transparency and accountability could be disrupted in Wisconsin.

Police accountability is necessary in any community. Over the last decade, body cameras have become one of the primary ways for the public to hold police accountable. But a new bill in the Wisconsin legislature could allow law enforcement agencies to charge for people to access these public records. At the same time, some agencies have begun refusing to name police officers accused of killing or injuring people on the job, some citing Marsy’s Law.

Jacob Resneck has been reporting on these issues around police privacy for Wisconsin Watch and offers some insight into the proposed bill.

"There is legislation now pending that would allow police agencies to charge money for the time it takes to edit the footage and redact footage for these privacy concerns. And there are concerns from reporters like myself that one that would slow down the process of releasing the footage," says Resneck. "And also it could make it prohibitively expensive not only for news organizations but also ordinary members of the public to access what we believe are public records."

It's common for body cam footage to be edited before being released. Resneck recalls an instance where he requested body cam footage from the Oshkosh Police Department for non-fatal shootings. But the footage was so redacted that the person who had been shot couldn't be seen.

After pushing back, Resneck obtained less altered footage. If this bill were to go through, procedures like this could become prohibitively expensive for news agencies and the public more generally.

Resneck says, "As news organizations are really, really stretched, I think we would see a lot less accountability for police encounters."

Jim Palmer, executive director for the Wisconsin Professional Police Association offers a law enforcement perspective on these matters.

Palmer says his organization advocates for the use of police body cameras, but it also believes law enforcement groups should be allowed to charge for the footage.

"We think it's important for the community to have their questions answered and to have a clear sense of what an officer was experiencing at the time [that] they utilized force in the line of duty," he explains.

"I really believe that some of the opposition as it relates to this legislation really is much ado about nothing. I agree that it should not be abused, but I think as we continue to see the growth and prevalence of body-worn camera technology throughout the state, I think it is going to become easier and less expensive over time to fulfill those requests than it is currently today," says Palmer.

The names of officers that are involved in shootings is also becoming harder to obtain because of an interpretation of Marsy's Law. In a non-fatal shooting last year, the names of those who were shot were quickly released, but the names of the officers who fired the shots were not.

Marsy's Law is the constitutional amendment passed by voters that expands victims' rights to privacy. The police department cited this law while refusing to release the names of these officers, which means they were expanding the definition of victim to include the police officers who fired their weapons.

While describing the potential issues of this interpretation, Resneck says, "One attorney that I spoke to said to me, 'Privacy does not equate to anonymity."

Resneck continues, "The Supreme Court held that nearly all public officials, due to their profiles, agents of the state, have the potential to incur the wrath of disgruntled members of the public and may be expected to face heightened public scrutiny. That is simply the nature of public employment."

Palmer insists that transparency and accountability are valued components of law enforcement practice. But in terms of Marsy's law, other factors should be considered.

"There are times when law enforcement officers, despite the fact that they may have had to use utilize force in the line of duty and they are public officials, so to speak, that they are also victims themselves," says Palmer. "And there are times not when it is appropriate for their names to be immediately released ... So, I think it's important to recognize that officers, simply because, you know, they put on a badge, they don't compromise or lose the rights of any other ordinary citizen."


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
Related Content