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Wisconsin Assembly approves limits on police body cam access

MADISON — A Republican-backed proposal limiting the public’s access to footage from police body cameras cleared the Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday, despite objections from open records advocates and Democrats who say it will quash the public’s ability to view certain video.

The bill has the support of law enforcement agencies across the state. Supporters say the goal is to institute guidelines and privacy protections for members of the public unwittingly captured on police cameras. But Democrats argued Thursday that the measure could be improved to ensure the public has access to footage without infringing on people’s privacy rights.

Under the proposal, all footage from a police body camera would be exempt from Wisconsin’s open records law except for video involving injuries, deaths, arrests and searches. But if footage was taken in a place where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as their home, police would have to obtain permission from any victims, witnesses and property owners before it could be released to the public.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, said he predicted because the bill puts privacy guidelines in place it will result in more law enforcement agencies equipping officers with cameras. He said that would lead to more footage being available to the public rather than less.

But opponents argued the consent notices for footage taken in places where privacy is expected were too onerous to result in video being released.

“This bill does nothing but further the divide between the police and the communities they’re meant to protect,” said Democratic Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, of Milwaukee. Democratic state Rep. Chris Taylor, of Madison, called the bill a “missed opportunity” to enact standards that work.

“The whole point of these body cameras is undercut by this stupid bill,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which represents newspapers, broadcasters and other media outlets. “This bill is poorly worded and will result in the denial of access to records that even the police would like to release.”

Body camera footage should be treated like dashcam video, police reports and other records that are presumed to be open unless the agency determines that the harm in releasing it outweighs the public interest in seeing it, Lueders said.

The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and Wisconsin Newspapers Association are working on amendments to the bill to increase public access to the body cam footage. Those changes weren’t before the Assembly on Thursday but could be taken up by the Senate, if it debates the bill next year.

Kremer, the bill’s sponsor, said Thursday he would be open to making improvements to the bill later if necessary and anticipated the Legislature would be returning to the issue in the coming years. If the Senate changes anything to the current bill, the Assembly would have to vote on it again next year.

The Assembly passed the bill on a voice vote.

Thirty other states have laws related to police body cameras. Of those, 18 address how data captured on the cameras are handled under open records laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There’s been a push nationally in the wake of shootings involving police to require more officers to wear body cameras to help determine what happens in those cases. The footage can end speculation about an officer’s actions, stoking or quelling public outrage in high-profile, racially charged shootings.

Wisconsin’s proposal does not require police departments to use body cameras. But its backers say establishing the privacy guidelines will lead to more agencies feeling comfortable equipping officers with cameras.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune  

Bryce Miller inspects the inside of a hydraulic cylinder Tuesday at the Western Technical College Diesel and Heavy Equipment facility. Miller is in his final year of the two-year program.

University of Wisconsin regents approve merging campuses

MADISON — The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approved a plan Thursday to merge the system’s two-year schools with its four-year campuses, brushing aside opponents’ complaints that faculty and students weren’t consulted and the proposal is too vague.

The regents signed off on the plan on a voice vote. State public schools Superintendent Tony Evers and Janice Mueller were the only regents who voted against the plan. They said the process has been rushed and the plan sorely lacks details.

“You say we have to be bold,” Mueller said before the vote. “But we also have to be deliberative.”

System President Ray Cross responded that the details will be sorted out before the merger goes into effect in July. That was good enough for the rest of the regents, who said the board has to move quickly to ensure the two-year schools stay open.

“I see opportunities and say full steam ahead,” Regent Bryan Steil said. “It’s the right thing to do for our students.”

Cross introduced the merger plan in mid-October. It calls for making the system’s 13 two-year schools regional branches of seven four-year schools. Students would still be able to earn associate degrees at the two-year institutions and would get a chance to take third- or fourth-year courses as well, Cross has said.

The plan is designed to make transferring from the two-year campuses to the four-year schools smoother and attract more students to the two-year schools so the institutions can remain open in some form. Enrollment at those institutions has dropped 32 percent since 2010, according to figures Cross presented to the regents Thursday. The number of college-age students in Wisconsin is also expected to dramatically shrink over the next two decades as the state’s population ages, according to the data.

“Clearly, the status quo is not sustainable,” Cross told the board. “We could continue to study this for months or even years ... but the challenges we face will not change.”

The plan also calls for UW-Madison to absorb UW-Extension’s community outreach efforts and system administration to take over UW-Extension’s other divisions, including public broadcasting.

News of the proposal angered students and faculty, who complained that they weren’t consulted as Cross developed the plan. The steering committee that will work through the merger doesn’t contain any faculty or students members. Cross told the regents that including faculty and students on the committee would make the panel too cumbersome. He promised the committee would take input from those groups in the coming months.

“I will not vote for this,” said Evers, who is running as a Democrat against Gov. Scott Walker next year. “A bad process usually leads to bad policy. There are people in the state of Wisconsin who feel they’ve been left behind in this process. Whether that’s reality or perception doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference.”

The proposal itself remains fuzzy. As Mueller pointed out, it includes no financial projections or estimates of potential job losses. Cross told reporters Thursday there will be some positions eliminated over time but could offer no specifics.

System officials initially said the two-year schools would lose their names and their associate degrees would bear the name of their affiliated four-year school, but Cross backed off on both of those prospects Thursday. He said local officials are concerned about losing their schools’ identity so they will have input in what happens. As for the degrees, he said they may carry the four-year schools’ name in time.

Also in question is what will become of the two-year schools’ sports teams. System spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the intent is to maintain them but no decisions have been made.