Assembly OKs body-cam bill; BPD working toward roll-out

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    Zibolski

BELOIT - Beloit police eventually will roll out a body camera system for all patrol officers, but the plan is moving slowly with no timeline yet on the implementation of the technology, according to Chief David Zibolski.

Beloit police are still reviewing policy related to the use of body-worn cameras on the street and across the School District of Beloit system, Zibolski said.

The department's review comes as the state Assembly voted by voice vote to approve a bill that would create requirements for law enforcement governing body camera policies and use, according to Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton. The bill also names state and local agencies the custodian of the body camera footage with the ability to oversee the data that would allow departments to deny access to the data.

Critics say the bill would hinder public access to body camera footage, while proponents of the Republican-backed bill say it would protect public privacy and how footage could capture images not for public view.

Zibolski added the department is monitoring the bill's progress through the Legislature, noting the changes would impact the department's efforts to use the technology.

"It will not adversely affect our proposed policy," Zibolski said, noting there were "no issues" if it passes.

The department previously hoped to roll out the use of body cameras in the school system and on patrol this fall. With the process taking longer than expected, Zibolski said he would like to start the initial pilot program "as soon as practicable."

In June the Board of Education Policy and Personnel Committee approved a policy to cover the use of body cameras in schools, and seven officers have been trained on using the technology ahead of the department-wide roll out.

Officers will train the department on usage ahead of the implementation. Zibolski previously told the Beloit Daily News the cameras were a "natural progression of being a progressive police department."

Last year, the department upgraded the audio and video recorders in the interview and interrogation room.

According to the proposed policy, body camera footage recorded on school property will be maintained by the police and will not be a pupil record maintained by the district unless such records are obtained by the district pursuant to an inter-agency agreement or as authorized by Wisconsin law.

The department will use its existing 14 body cameras for on-duty patrol officers, rather than purchase additional equipment. The cameras purchased in 2014 cost $1,500 each, and storing the footage could cost up to $30,000 annually.

In Madison, the Assembly bill sparked furious debate between Republican advocates and Democrat opponents, with news media representatives working to preserve public access to critical information.

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.

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 Newspaper 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.

(The Associated Press contributed to this article.)

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