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The Badger Project files lawsuit against La Crosse Police Department over public records

BY NATHAN DENZIN

The Badger Project is suing the La Crosse Police Department for refusing to release public records regarding a former officer who resigned in lieu of termination in 2019.

The officer then went to work as a police officer for another agency, but resigned from there in good standing in April, according to the state Department of Justice. He is currently out of law enforcement.

The Wisconsin Transparency Project, a law firm that focuses on the state’s open records and meetings laws, filed the lawsuit on Sep. 30 at the La Crosse County Circuit Court on behalf of The Badger Project’s managing editor Peter Cameron.

Cameron first filed the records request in April. 

According to state law, all public records are open to public inspection unless the government agency can point to a specific exemption on the books.

In May, the La Crosse Police Department denied Cameron’s request, claiming “internal disciplinary” as the reason the records were not subject to disclosure.

“The (La Crosse Police Department) is making things up, citing to an exemption that doesn’t exist,” said Tom Kamenick, president of the Wisconsin Transparency Project and Cameron’s attorney. “There is no blanket exemption for records of internal investigations, and court after court has rejected the argument that government employers can keep details of their investigations secret.”

When asked for comment, La Crosse Police Department Assistant Chief Jason Melby referred The Badger Project to the city attorney’s office. That office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The lawsuit seeks the release of the withheld documents. If The Badger Project wins in court, the La Crosse Police Department must pay its legal fees plus potential statutory damages, according to state law.

“It’s unbelievable that in this day and age, police departments still think they can shield the wrongdoing of their officers from the public,” Kamenick said. “Police officers exercise great authority over the citizenry, and they must be held responsible to the public for their actions.  ‘Trust us, we’ll handle it’ is no longer an acceptable response to allegations of wrongdoing.”

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

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