News directors testify on body cameras bill

In the News Legal & Legislative Issues

The news directors from two Wisconsin television stations testified to a State Senate committee about their concerns with a bill that would regulate the use of police body cameras and public access to video collected by the cameras.

Ben Hart from WISN-TV in Milwaukee and Sean Dwyer from WXOW-TV in La Crosse said the bill’s rules about the release of video footage creates numerous complicated layers that don’t properly balance the goal of protecting privacy with the public’s right to know. They asked the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee to consider sending the issue to a study committee for further review.

The text of their full testimony is below.

The bill is the work of Rep. Jesse Kremer, who testified at the hearing in favor of the bill, along with Senate bill author and committee member Sen.  Patrick Testin.

The bill passed the Assembly on Nov. 9.

Testimony of Ben Hart, News Director, WISN-TV, Milwaukee

I’m Ben Hart, News Director for WISN 12, the ABC Affiliate in Milwaukee.   

Every day newsrooms across our state scramble to cover breaking news inside our coverage area, including things you do here in the Capitol.

Over the years, we have all have developed working relationships with our local police, to tell the public what happened when police have to respond. 

With long standing rules and laws, we generally work well together.  When they respond to a crime scene, police have control of the scene.  We get close enough to ask questions. 

Police decide what parts they want to share from what they find pertinent.    

One example happened in 2016.

After an officer involved shooting in Milwaukee, community members had a large protest that became violent – all tied to what they “thought” an officer had done.  

With a lack of clarity, — the clamor for answers left the city in a massive unrest.

To this day, Milwaukee is rebuilding both physically and mentally. 

A year later, when the same case finally went to trial the jury and the public saw the split second decision that the officer had to make. This time when most people saw the body cam, they could agree it was a hard position for the officer – to say the least.

In that case, we found that with body cam video, the community was informed and therefore satisfied.  

I’m not certain what the outcome would have been if this legislation was in fact law.  We can’t afford to make changes that impact people’s lives unless we have a long and serious look at a proposal like this.

Police have a job to protect the community, and protect the integrity of the case.  We are supposed to keep things illuminated, and work with the public to shine a light.

The word *transparency* has been one thing we can count on when it comes to letting the public know what’s going on.

After several particularly rough years, taxpayer-funded body cameras have helped to protect the police and the public from that *grey* area.  

Body cameras and dash cameras keep everyone honest, and tell an unabridged story on the simple basis of fact.   When this works well, journalists and police can agree on what we see.  It also allows people to trust their own eyes and to put themselves in an officer’s shoes.

This legislation has the noble goal of protecting the privacy of witnesses and bystanders, which is already a priority for broadcasters. The legislation creates unnecessary red tape and delays to address a concern that broadcasters not only share, but also address on a regular basis. We would propose amending SB 279 (AB 351) to allow the custodian of recordings from body cameras to work with broadcasters to redact the faces and voices of innocent people in these videos.

The balancing test works.  SB 279 (AB351) creates numerous complicated layers to the process that don’t properly balance the goal of protecting privacy with the public’s right to know.

We believe this new legislation is good intentioned, but bad for the practicality of truth. 

We would ask that this issue be taken up by a study committee so that a proper balance can be struck between the rights of victims and witnesses and the public’s right to know.

Testimony of Sean Dwyer, News Director, WQOW-TV, La Crosse

My name is Sean Dwyer.  I’m the News Director at WXOW TV-19 in La Crosse.  Our station is owned by Quincy Media Inc. which runs TV News departments in Eau Claire, Wausau, and Madison. In addition, our viewers are from Stevens Point, Marshfield, Wisconsin Rapids and other communities.

All TV newsrooms have daily contact with law enforcement. While crime and mayhem are a part of local coverage, newsrooms produce good news stories about officers, positive police interaction within our communities, crime prevention, staff training, department improvements and technology.   Police body cameras are a component of tech improvements. The cameras provide a visual record of a police officer’s job. When departments get the cameras, they are referred to as crime fighting technology. The cameras provide a visual context of what police deal with on the job.

Still every technology has limitations. Video storage, proper use, training, and how the video is used afterward factor into the effectiveness of the technology. The technology represents advancement, but raises complicated questions about best practices. The cameras help provide the public visual evidence of how law enforcement responds to crime. This is an important condition of the public’s right to know.

Two recent crimes in the La Crosse area involved video of police’s response to crime. In August a car chase ended when a suspect threatened officers with a gun. The police responded with deadly force. In August, La Crescent police were involved in another high speed chase that ended with suspects firing shots at local police. Police returned fire. In both instances judicious release of dash camera videos provided visual evidence that both shootings were warranted and justified. The video did not create or contribute to an invasion of privacy. Neither video clips threatened any citizen’s fourth amendment rights. Each video sustained community confidence in their police.

The legislation, SB 279, adds complicated layers to existing open records law that. Broadcasters recognize the need to protect victims and witnesses, which is why we routinely edit videos to redact the identities of those people. This legislation creates delay when it’s not necessary and tips the balancing test against the public’s right to know. We would support an amendment to give the decision to release body camera video back to law enforcement if they don’t hear from victims or witnesses, but this would still not address the issue of timeliness.

The balance between the rights of the victims and witnesses and the right of the public to access this footage is a complicated one, which is why we would prefer that this issue be taken to a study committee where the rights of all parties involved can be addressed.

As reporters we are motivated by transparency not invasion of privacy. Compared to the number of security cameras, cellphone cameras, social media video posts, and D-O-T traffic cameras most of us are under public video scrutiny more than we realize. Obviously when police are involved the video elevates to a public safety standard. The overlooked aspect of body cameras is that unlike social media videos or personal cell videos, there is an implied veracity to police body camera video. Not being forthcoming with the video undermines that public trust. The video exists. The public’s faith in officers erodes if release is withheld or unjustly delayed. The choice to delay the release of body camera video creates an information vacuum. The lack of evidence space is quickly filled with public questioning and speculation. This proposed legislation will keep police departments from releasing video which exonerates officers decisions and actions.  The taxpayer pays for the cameras they should have access to evidence they provide. 

The state’s public record laws already allow police to withhold information under several circumstances.  There are already laws protecting privacy. The legislation is in need of serious examination which puts more emphasis on openness for Wisconsin’s citizens.

There is no need to rush this bill through right now.  On behalf of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, I would propose, and respectfully ask that this committee study the proposal over the summer. I know that many broadcasters would give you as much time, information and expertise as necessary to improve this legislation and to provide the balance it needs to serve law enforcement, the media and the citizens of Wisconsin.