Accessing police body-worn camera footage in Wisconsin

"We're at the second phase of the battle."
Posted at 10:06 AM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 19:49:53-04

In Milwaukee, police began using body-worn cameras in 2015 after the public and members of the common council demanded more transparency following the death of Dontre Hamilton seven years ago.

The public's access to body cam footage is limited in the state of Wisconsin, which can have an effect on public perception, and court proceedings.

Attorney B'Ivory LaMarr represents the Acevedo family. Joel Acevedo was killed after then off-duty Milwaukee Police officer Michael Mattioli allegedly held him in a chokehold during a fight at a party.

"We're at the second phase of the battle," LaMarr said. "The first thing is to have the actual body cams, have the departments to have these cameras. The second thing is to actually have the information gleaned from the material accessible."

A judge ruled that the body camera footage from the officers that responded to the incident regarding Mattioli and Acevedo be released. But the former police officer's attorneys have appealed that decision to a higher court.

"We made our first FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request May of last year," LaMarr said. "And here we are summer of 2021 and we still don't have it."

When members of the public including journalists and lawyers want to access body camera footage, we have to file an open records request.

Public agencies are supposed to release those records, including video, without delay.

But our requests are routinely denied when an investigation is ongoing, not just from Milwaukee Police, but agencies across the state.

Accessing police body-worn camera footage in Wisconsin

It's not the same outside of Wisconsin. In Chicago, video of the deadly police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo was released in about two weeks. And in Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis, police released the video of an officer killing Daunte Wright. That video was released the next day.

Milwaukee Police did recently release three minutes and 52 seconds of body cam footage 45 days after the deadly shooting of Roberto Zielinski.

It was part of the police department's Community Briefing Series, not a response to an open records request.

We asked them why they decided to release the footage, and they responded with the following statement:

"For the past couple years, the Milwaukee Police Department Public Information Office has released community briefings for officer involved critical incidents which may include body cam footage. This is separate from any other investigation and from open records requests. As it relates to open records requests, there are state laws that apply to the release of records and those laws do not apply to the release of the content in community briefings. MPD values transparency and accountability, particularly as is relates to officer involved shootings. Currently, MPD is one of the only, if not the only, Wisconsin law enforcement agency that releases community briefings to the public for officer involved critical incidents prior to a charging decision. MPD prioritizes releasing information on officer involved shootings as soon as possible, unless releasing the information will jeopardize the integrity of the investigation. Per Wisconsin state law, fatal officer involved incidents must be investigated by an outside agency, which necessarily causes delays in obtaining all the information necessary to release information to the public."

During a press conference, the family and their lawyers argued three minutes and 52 seconds of the video was not enough.

"When the Milwaukee police department releases a video for transparency purposes, but release a video that is doctored and edited to push their narrative, that is not transparent, that is not accountability and that is not justice," said Russell Ainsworth of Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law.

While the Zielinski family continues to fight for the full release of body cam video, the Acevedo family's case is in the appeals court.

UW-Madison Law School Professor Keith Findley says decisions made at that level can have lasting implications.

"If a court resolves a novel question about the use of body-worn camera footage and it comes out in the published, or even to some extent and published an appellate opinion, yeah, that will be precedent that can influence future decisions," Findley said.

LaMarr believes they will eventually be successful in getting the body-worn camera footage into the courtroom, and to the public.

"If we have to go all the way to the Supreme Court, we're happy to do so," LaMarr said. "This case is important, not only for Joel Acevedo and justice for him, but of course across all the cases that occur in the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin."

LaMarr pointed out that a judge redacted parts of the video in the Acevedo case. If that footage does come out, we may not hear Mattioli's voice or see his face.

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