Public access to police body camera footage would be limited under a bill approved Thursday by the Wisconsin Assembly. 

The legislation is designed to give law enforcement clear guidelines for using the technology and to protect the privacy of victims and witnesses, said bill author Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum. But open records advocates say it shifts the balance in favor of secrecy rather than disclosure. 

Under the bill, all footage captured in a public space by a police body camera would be exempt from the state's open records law, except in cases of injury, death, arrests or searches. The release of footage obtained in a place where people would have a reasonable expectation of privacy would be subject to the approval of victims and witnesses, along with the owners or occupants of the property.

Any footage not involving injury, death, an arrest or a search could be destroyed after 120 days. 

Law enforcement agencies throughout the state back the proposal, and some have said a set of statewide guidelines could result in more local agencies using the cameras. 

But open government advocates argue footage taken with taxpayer-funded body cameras should be available to the public. 

Bill Lueders, head of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said during a hearing on the bill last month the bill would make law enforcement less transparent. There is a legitimate public interest in the footage recorded by the cameras, he argued, and the legislation puts too many hurdles in the way of accessing it. 

Kremer said the impetus for the bill is, in part, a growing concern that Americans have given up too much privacy in exchange for safety, in particular in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

Kremer said he worked with several Democrats on the legislation, incorporating ideas from Reps. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha; David Crowley, D-Milwaukee; and Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee. He also tried to work with Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, but the two couldn't come to an agreement between his proposal and a competing one she had authored.

Taylor said Kremer's proposal "could have been a really great bill."

"It’s unfortunately a real missed opportunity that this bill is going to make it more difficult for the public to get access to footage," Taylor said. 

Taylor argued the law should expand the scenarios under which footage must be retained to include illegal searches, inappropriate or unethical conduct or when a weapon is drawn. 

Taylor and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, also voiced concerns that the law would allow footage to be destroyed that could exonerate law enforcement in disputes. 

"It’s a balancing act between access to information and creating standards for law enforcement that guide what is really a pretty new and emerging situation," Hintz said.

States and communities throughout the country have put an increased focus in recent years on developing policies and requirements for body cameras that capture the activities of police officers while they're on duty.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation addressing how body camera footage is treated under open records laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Kremer said he purposely kept the language in the bill from addressing too many specific scenarios, adding that he expects the Legislature will continue to address the issue as technology evolves.

"We’re going to leave this open to the courts, and we are going to be revisiting this in the future," Kremer said. 

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