- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republican legislators are circulating a bill that would seal off huge chunks of police body camera video from the public, saying they want to protect the privacy of people featured in the footage.

Rep. Jesse Kremer and Sen. Patrick Testin’s bill would exempt footage of everything recorded in public except for injuries, deaths, arrests and searches from the state’s open records law. Video of officer-involved shootings that take place in public would still be accessible.

But if footage was taken in a place where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a home, police would need permission from any victims, witnesses and property owners before the video could be released to the public. That means victims, witnesses and property owners could conceivably block the release of video of officer-involved shootings that take place in a home or other places where a judge believes a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Body camera video can play a crucial role in determining what happened in officer-involved shootings. The footage can end speculation about an officer’s actions, stoking or quelling public outrage in high-profile, racially charged shootings.

Kremer and Testin wrote in a memo to their colleagues seeking co-sponsors that they want to prevent victims and witnesses from being shown in compromising videos that could end up online or the “target” of a media story. Kremer said in a telephone interview the bill is designed to ensure footage of something happening in someone’s home can’t be released to a nosy neighbor.

“(Body camera footage is) a very useful tool for the public and law enforcement, but it’s got to be done carefully,” he said.

The bill also would allow police to destroy footage after 120 days unless it’s related to an injury, death, arrest or search. That footage could be destroyed only upon final disposition of the case or when a judge decides the video isn’t needed any longer, although prosecutors, police, defendants and judges could order any footage preserved beyond the 120-day mark.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, didn’t immediately respond to an email Wednesday.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state’s largest police union, said the bill is a good starting point for establishing a uniform statewide policy on body camera video retention and access.

He said his organization would be open, however, to making footage of incidents that fall short of the injury-death-arrest-search threshold publicly available if someone files a complaint against an officer. He also suggested that perhaps video of officer-involved deaths in private settings could be accessible with redactions since such videos can exonerate officers and end public speculation about their actions.

“It’s a constructive starting point but clearly there may be improvements that need to be made,” Palmer said. “This bill will produce a lively and informative debate.”

The bill’s prospects look uncertain. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald hasn’t had a chance to review the proposal, spokesman Myranda Tanck said. Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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