Cameras are about to roll in the ongoing drama featuring the public and police, and advance reviews are hopeful that affixing body cams to officers will help shine a spotlight on interactions between the two. One bill recently passed the Minnesota Senate, and the House held a hearing Tuesday afternoon for another.
Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Department could start fitting First Precinct cops as early as the end of the month, after submitting proposed rules to the City Council.
There is general agreement that body cams could help provide police transparency and accountability, but there is already a lot of concern that the proposals offered so far will do neither.
There is also concern from some council members that Minneapolis is unprepared to handle the amount of data these cameras will collect in both routine interactions with police and potentially deadly confrontations.
In essence, the issue continues to be a mess.
Rich Neumeister, a government data and privacy advocate who testified at the House hearing Tuesday, doesn’t like what he sees from legislative attempts to set rules for the body cams.
“It’s still a secret police bill,” said Neumeister. “Transparency and accountability are being swallowed up” by legislation that seems geared more to protect police than provide the public with information. He said intense lobbying by law enforcement agencies has turned the reasoning behind body cams on its head.
Some proposed legislation, for example, provides for police video only in public places in events where there is “substantial bodily harm,” a term left to interpretation by police, Neumeister and others say.
The leading proposals now also don’t require police to get consent to film inside a person’s house in nonemergencies, potentially giving law enforcement technologically enhanced opportunities to look for unrelated criminal behavior.
Neumeister said some of the wording proposed thus far would actually take information that is now public and make it nonpublic.
“I was hoping for changing the culture of how law enforcement works in Minnesota with greater oversight, community trust, accountability and transparency with body cameras,” Neumeister said.
“It basically is going to be used as an investigative and surveillance tool.”
Minneapolis City Council Member Linea Palmisano has also expressed concerns that evidence gathered by the cams will be used mostly by police to vindicate police, and she said the city is woefully equipped to deal with public data requests.
“I want this data to be usable,” said Palmisano. “If we aren’t managing the data from a body camera program and making it accessible, it’s of zero worth. And I think we are about to get snowed [under] in terms of how we might catalog this type of data and be able to go and access it.”
Palmisano said the city budgeted for two video analysts in police internal affairs, which suggests that police see the use of the videos as “internal-facing” and that “there’s no appetite for this in the police department.”
Minneapolis police are already far behind in data requests. In February, officials said the number of requests for data has grown by 400 percent in a few years, and each week the unit that reviews records requests are behind by about 100 hours a week.
Palmisano would actually prefer that the city clerk’s office be the one to “triage” requests, rather than police. When the cameras start being used, the lawyers won’t be far behind asking to see video to clear their clients.
At the Capitol, legislators have struggled with the complex issues of whether to let officers determine when to start filming and when to stop. They’ve also wrestled with issues of consent and whether cameras could interfere with the First Amendment — capturing faces at a protest, for example.
Sen. Ron Latz’s bill would have helped in the Jamar Clark death: It classifies data as public when the use of force by an officer “results in significant bodily harm or death in a public space” and gives video subjects an opportunity to redact their images.
But given the myriad issues that still need to be addressed, body cams are not likely to be even close to the panacea for police violence that many hope, and experts like Neumeister would rather see the issue die this year than see a badly written bill that actually reduces accountability.
“It can’t be fixed at this late date,” Neumeister said.