On Sunday, August 14, after a night of unrest prompted by the fatal police shooting of a black man, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said his review of body camera video of the incident proved the officer had acted appropriately. “The individual did turn toward the officer with a firearm in his hand,” Flynn stated, later saying the man, 23-year-old Sylville Smith, “was raising up with” the gun. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said a still photo he was shown from the video “demonstrates, without question, that (Smith) had a gun in his hand.” In fact, Barrett declared, the officer “ordered that individual to drop his gun, the individual did not drop his gun.”
This purportedly exculpatory video itself was not promptly released, despite requests from Barrett and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that this occur. It still has not been released. But we know now that public officials did not give an accurate account of what it shows.
One of the most important court decisions in Wisconsin political history was argued largely in secret. The arguments were made in briefs that were heavily redacted or entirely shielded from public view. The evidence was hidden. Most of the litigants were anonymous.
State Attorney General Brad Schimel has been a stand-up guy when it comes to open government issues in Wisconsin since he took over the Department of Justice in 2015. He created an office of open government, held a summit on government transparency, worked to improve records request response times within his own office, and took forceful issue with some of his fellow Republicans’ attempts to gut the state’s public records law last year. In April, he was given the Political Openness Award by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which noted “how seriously he takes his statutory role to interpret and enforce the state’s openness laws.”
ByApril Barker (Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council) |
Over the July 4 weekend in 2015, members of the state Legislature sparked a public uproar by proposing last-minute changes to the state budget bill that would have created a “deliberative process” exception to Wisconsin’s long-cherished public records law. Government transparency advocates condemned the move, and the changes were hastily rescinded.
Wisconsin’s third branch of government is critical to open government. This year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear three cases involving Wisconsin’s open records law, and could make important decisions involving access to the courts. The court’s docket starts with a case about whether videos of law enforcement training sessions must be released to the public. The videos were requested from then-Waukesha District Attorney Brad Schimel by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin during the race for attorney general, which Schimel later won. Lower courts rejected Department of Justice arguments that disclosing the videos would educate criminals about law enforcement practices and harm crime victims, because the information was already in the public sphere and did not identify victims.
The appeals court ruled that the DOJ “neither made the exceptional case required to shield public records from public view … nor overcame the presumption of complete public access to public records.” But the justices have agreed to take another look.
Last year on July 2, the state Legislature launched a sneak attack on Wisconsin’s open records law, effectively seeking to exempt legislators from its reach. That effort died following a huge public backlash. But some lawmakers, it’s clear, remain actively hostile to the state’s tradition of open government.
A Wisconsin court of appeals has finally put to rest some of the questions over what information must be withheld under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, or DPPA. Its recent decision ends years of confusion in a way that squares with the state’s traditions of openness — and with common sense.
Two years ago, the Fond du Lac School District unveiled new guidelines requiring administrative review and approval before the publication of any student media. The reaction by students was swift, democratic and effective. Within days, they had publicized the change online, presented their case at a school board meeting, appeared on local media, and gathered several thousand signatures on a petition calling for student publications to be returned to the students. Over the next several months, they highlighted the district’s use of these guidelines to block the publication of particular photos and information. These efforts succeeded.
Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government and the people’s right to know, got an unexpected and welcome beam of hope in mid-March when Gov. Scott Walker issued an executive order directing state agencies to speed up responses to public records requests and to track them to show their performance.
Among the many remarkable things about the defeat of the proposed overhaul of the Wisconsin Public Records Law over the July 4 weekend last summer was the way the media, open government groups, advocacy organizations on the left and right, and the public coalesced to point out how ill-conceived the idea was.
The last six months have been a roller coaster for Wisconsin’s open records law. After the Legislature’s failed attack on the law over the Independence Day holiday, August brought a new threat. A little-known state board expanded the definition of “transitory records,” which can be immediately destroyed. Once this action was revealed, there was an impressive outcry from the public and that change was dialed back last month. But there is still cause for concern.
In 2015, Wisconsin advocates for open government faced a disquieting truth: If we want to preserve our state’s tradition of transparency and accountability, we must fight for it, against powerful players who will be fighting back.