Bill curbing access to police body camera footage advances

Published 3:10 pm Saturday, March 21, 2015

ST. PAUL — A Minnesota bill that would limit public access to video footage from police body cameras cleared its first legislative hurdle Friday, advancing the debate over how to responsibly deploy devices that can provide a revealing look into law enforcement.

After weeks of discussion and refinement, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent the bill to the floor for an eventual vote. The legislation would classify the body camera data as private, except for video that captures an officer using a dangerous weapon or causing bodily harm. It also would provide ways for people to obtain recordings of incidents involving themselves and to blur their images before the footage is released to the general public.

Minnesota is one of many states weighing how to manage the cameras and the volumes of data they produce. Shutting off access too much can weaken their effectiveness as police accountability tools, but making everything public could swamp agencies with records requests and lead to embarrassing or salacious footage ending up on the Internet.

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Without action this year, virtually all footage would be deemed public. Some fear it would make body cameras unappealing for police departments.

“Law enforcement is not going to use them and then you don’t get the benefit to law enforcement and you don’t get the benefit to those who want public accountability for law enforcement,” said Democratic Sen. Ron Latz, the bill’s chief sponsor. “So everyone loses if we do nothing.”

The cameras are being widely used in Duluth and Burnsville, while Minneapolis and Hastings are among the cities undertaking pilot projects.

The bill’s ultimate fate is in doubt because House lawmakers haven’t acted on companion legislation and Gov. Mark Dayton remains noncommittal. Dayton said Friday he’s still trying to figure out the nuances of the issue before weighing in.

The Senate committee’s deliberation over the bill illustrates the complexities. Each time it modified a section to address police objections, civil liberty and government data watchdog groups raised concerns about narrowing access too much. There is no firm definition of the subject of a video, which would matter if police are responding to a mass disturbance and could cause redaction headaches. Data could be withheld if it is deemed “clearly offensive to common sensibilities,” a subjective standard that Latz later said would include gruesome images or nudity.

The bill leaves it to local agencies to adopt policies covering when the devices should be on and off. Senators backed off a proposal that would have required officers responding to calls to give notice or seek consent before filming people in private dwellings.

Minneapolis Police Federation President John Delmonico and city attorney Susan Segal said insisting upon consent would undermine the transparency and evidence-gathering purposes of the cameras or impair domestic-abuse investigations.

“I don’t want an abuser in a house to be able to tell law enforcement to turn off the camera,” Segal said.

The bill requires police agencies using the cameras to make statistics publicly available on the number of devices they have, the volume of footage and the schedule for keeping or destroying data. Data would have to be kept for at least 90 days and longer if it involves use of force or is part of evidence in a criminal proceeding.

To guard against release of data by third-party vendors supplying the cameras or storing footage, the bill establishes financial penalties for improper disclosures.