Releasing Police Videos, U.S. Customs Asking For Visitors’ Social Media Information, Boost The Economy By Relieving Student Debt

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Following the police shooting of Sylville Smith in Milwaukee last summer, the city’s police department decided against releasing video of the incident. The head of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council joins us to talk about why he thinks releasing such recordings is in the public interest. We also hear an argument for relieving student debt in America, a move our guest says would help boost the economy. Foreign visitors to the United States may now be asked by customs officials to provide information about their social media accounts, as part of the visa waiver application process. The choice is officially voluntary, but privacy advocates are concerned. We find out more about the practice.

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  • An Argument For The Release Of Police Videos

    The head of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council argues that releasing the video recording of the police shooting of Sylville Smith in Milwaukee last summer would be in the public interest.

  • Bill Lueders Calling For New Law On Releasing Officer Body Camera Footage

    Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, is calling for a new statewide law on releasing video footage captured by police body cameras. The request follows Milwaukee’s mayor and police chief providing what Lueders calls “inaccurate” accounts of the officer-involved shooting that sparked nights of unrest in the city’s Sherman Park neighborhood in August.

    Law enforcement agencies across the nation, including in Wisconsin, have become increasingly equipped with body cameras to record video footage of arrests and other interactions with the public.

    Wisconsin passed a law in 2014 providing more consistency in how officer-involved shootings are handled, but it doesn’t mandate if and when body camera footage should be released to the public in those cases.

    Lueders, also associate editor of The Progressive magazine, said it’s time that changed.

    “I’m just troubled by the idea that we are creating public information and then denying the public the ability to view it,” he said. “I just think that is absolutely wrong, from the public policy point of view, to make the public pay for information that it is not allowed to see, even as you have public officials making representations about it.”

    In August, Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown shot and killed 23-year-old Sylville Smith. The shooting set off days of unrest on the city’s north side. Days after the shooting, Milwaukee officials made strong pronouncements about the shooting after reviewing footage captured by Heaggan-Brown’s body camera.

    After first review the video footage, Police Chief Ed Flynn stated the shooting appeared justified at first glance.

    “I know what I saw on the video. I know what I see in the still. Certainly appears to me at the time he made the decision. It was a credible and legally protected decision,” he said in August.

    Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett did not see the full footage of the incident, only a still photo. At a press conference, he stated the photo from the video “demonstrates, without question, that (Smith) had a gun in his hand,” and was told by Smith to drop it.

    Regardless of the intentions, many have said the public statements by both officials were offered as exculpatory evidence towards a justified police shooting, even though both men had also cautioned the public to be patient with the investigation.

    Less than a month ago, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm decided to file a homicide charge against the officer who had since been fired from the department for a separate incident.

    The video is now being characterized much differently than the initial public statements by the officials.

    “The public should not have been given assurances as to what the video showed only to later learn that the video showed something completely different,” Lueders said.

    Lueders said that while police department officials say they’re working to become more accountable, he remains frustrated by their unwillingness to release video to the public.

    “And then in a situation like this, they have the footage and they say, ‘You can’t see it, but we’ll tell you what it shows,’” Lueders said. “And then it emerges that the way that they’ve expressed what it shows is incorrect, it’s inaccurate. It’s contradicted by someone else who has viewed the exact same materials, and they say, ‘You still can’t see it.’”

    Heaggan-Brown waived his preliminary hearing in December, preventing the police video of the incident being shown by Chisholm, who said he was prepared to show the footage of the shooting during the hearing.

    In a blog post on the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council website, Lueders writes it’s time to pass statewide legislation to make law enforcement agencies more transparent.

    “Now is the time, in the wake of this regrettable case, for the citizens of Wisconsin to insist that the video records they are paying for are not kept secret or used to mislead them,” he said.

  • US Visa Waiver Program Wants Applicants' Social Media Information

    Visitors applying to enter the United States as part of the visa waiver program will notice a new section on their application form asking them to divulge their social media information.

    U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials began implementing the policy last week, saying the information can help them identify potential terrorists. While providing this information is voluntary, privacy advocates are concerned that the collection and usage of the information is not sufficiently controlled or monitored.

    The Electronic System for Travel Authorization’s electronic form now contains a section prompting applicants to provide their username for about a dozen social media sites, said Emma Llansó, policy counsel and the director of the Free Expression Project for the Center for Democracy & Technology. The new section is in addition to the usual visa questions such as name, date of birth and nationality.

    The Department of Homeland Security cites security concerns and claims the visa waiver program could potentially be used by criminals or terrorists to circumvent security screenings. But Llansó and other privacy advocates are concerned about the larger dragnet of information that could result from this move.

    “As we started digging into what all could happen under this program, it seems clear that this is a pretty broad potential collection of really invasive information that could be fed into all sorts of different intelligence community and law enforcement activities in the United States,” Llansó said.

    Asking a person’s name and country of origin is very different from asking someone their Twitter handle or Facebook profile page, Llansó said.

    “It’s a lot richer kind of information than has been handed over in these forms before,” Llansó noted, “And it has a potential to open people up to scrutiny for all sorts of things, like their political beliefs or opinions, who they associate with, who they follow because they’re curious about them, even if they’re not attached or supportive of the ideas that those people express.”

    One may wonder why the government couldn’t just source this information online, which in many cases is public and easy to find. But Llansó said the mere fact of having these questions on the form, even though answering them is optional, could result in an avalanche of information from a lot more people than when government officials have to do the legwork on individual cases.

    “It goes from a situation where you might have investigators in a small number of cases deciding a person really merits additional scrutiny to having general information collection from a really broad base of people that then gets shared much more widely throughout the U.S. government,” she said.

    Even though providing this information is voluntary, Llansó pointed out that people may feel pressure to avoid any action that could lead to additional scrutiny or result in being denied the visa waiver.

    “So I think even though it’s marked optional, there’s definitely the risk that this prompt will essentially be felt as a mandatory ask for information by people who are concerned that if they don’t provide it, they won’t be able to visit the United States.”

    Llansó said she is concerned about the risk of setting a precedent for other countries. While the Department of Homeland Security’s ESTA application form lists this information as an optional provision, she thinks it’s only a matter of time before other countries could make such disclosures mandatory. And, she added, “there’s any number of countries with different laws about what is lawful communication, what you can say politically in terms of critiquing the leaders of government, or what kinds of organizations or associations that you support.”

    For the U.S. to set this example may seem like a small step, acknowledged Llansó. After all, many of the countries in the visa waiver program are among America’s closest allies.

    “It seems like a small step,” Llansó said, “but I think it can take us down a very dangerous path.”

  • US Customs Officials Asking For Access To Visitors' Social Media Accounts

    U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have recently started asking foreign visitors to provide information about their social media accounts as part of the visa waiver application process. While billed as voluntary, privacy advocates are concerned.

  • To Help The Economy, Relieve The Burden Of Student Debt

    A college president with deep roots in economics and finance argues that relieving the debt burden on young people would be a positive step in stimulating the US economy.

Episode Credits

  • Veronica Rueckert Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Marika Suval Producer
  • Bill Lueders Guest
  • Emma Llanso Guest
  • Sheila C. Bair Guest

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