Viewing footage from a police officer’s body camera might be about to get more difficult.
A Wisconsin state bill, AB 351 – which has been voted out of the assembly’s criminal justice and public safety committee – pits First Amendment rights up against the Fourth, creating a boxing ring between guaranteed liberties.
In line with the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,” the bill would make any body camera footage filmed on a police officer confidential, unless there’s written permission for its release from the owner of the home.
A vital part of democracy is keeping a check on all parts of the government, and that includes our law enforcement, whose noble duty is to uphold law. But often, as we have seen repeatedly, our rights are violated when our tax dollars are at work. Limiting public access to any law enforcement actions – especially in places that are deemed to be private and out of view of the public – are vital to upholding our rights as citizens.
As citizens, we should be able to access any and all information created by the government that does not have the compelling interest of keeping it sealed. That includes body camera footage.
The intentions behind the bill are noble. The bill seeks to limit access to places where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as your home, bathrooms and changing rooms. Even your own blood, as police are required to obtain a warrant if a person is unwilling to submit to a breathalyzer test. It’s been in this area where the right to privacy has won over other First Amendment rights – for example, invasion of privacy is illegal and can be prosecuted under law.
Giving law enforcement the ability to hide behind laws that determine our rights, rather than have their behavior dictated by them, is a slippery slope.
It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see where this law could go wrong. Law enforcement could enter one’s home, act in an unlawful manner and the footage might never reach the public, simply because the person is unaware that they need to give written permission for the footage to be released, or they do not wish for it to be revealed.
From the standpoint of a reporter, oftentimes the news does not revolve around whether a person approves of the reporting or the methodology of its gathering, but the reason why it deserves to be printed in the first place.
The public, whether in physical terms such as sidewalks and parks, or in the way of a noun, meaning citizens, is also a force for creating an environment where a certain level of behavior is expected in a civil society. We often tend to act differently in places where we can be seen by others. Visibility is akin to accountability.
Let’s be candid for a minute: we’ve seen the reprehensible conduct of some members of law enforcement when they have been in the public eye. We remember people such as Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri; Philando Castile of St. Paul, Minnesota and Tony Robinson in Madison in March 2015. These acts of police brutality – let’s call them what they are – were done in public view. A camera was out during Castile’s shooting, and law enforcement opened fire anyways.
To think behavior will improve when the public can’t see what’s going on is downright delusional.
A democracy that hides information from its citizens with the notion that they’re “doing us a favor” is no democracy at all. If We, The People, are going to foot the bill for body cameras as an insurance policy for the protection of our rights against state actions, we should demand we be shown that our Constitution is upheld by law enforcement, and accept nothing less.