Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell was the first to give testimony on a measure that creates restrictive new rules for police departments using body cameras. Sitting alongside GOP state Rep. Tony Cornish, a retired cop, he gave a brief statement supporting the proposal.
Over the next three hours, a parade of testifiers came before a recent House’s civil law committee to oppose the measure, many saying it would greatly limit public access to the footage. Then the panel voted overwhelming to support the measure, 11-2.
“You had hour after hour of testimony against the bill … and it didn’t mean a thing,” said Don Gemberling, an open-government advocate and critic of the more restrictive proposal.
The fervent campaign to restrict the body camera measure is a sign of the rising clout that law enforcement officials have at the State Capitol, but which is also drawing critics who say the influence is excessive.
Law enforcement lobbyists say their political potency is overstated, noting a string of high-profile losses, like their failed push for broader background checks on firearm purchases.
“We try to develop relationships with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, and I think we’re fortunate in that most of the legislators want to certainly hear our message,” said police lobbyist Dennis Flaherty, who is executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA).
Gemberling, of the law enforcement coalition, sees it another way: “They not only ran us over, they trampled us.”
‘David and Goliath’
St. Paul DFL Rep. John Lesch, who voted against the proposal, said Gemberling gave it “the college try and had some good ideas, but in reality it’s David and Goliath.”
Law enforcement groups have advocated on a variety of measures at the Capitol in recent years, ranging from allowing cops to retain license plate reader scans to blocking an expansion of fireworks sales. They also helped shape one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country.
Ben Feist, a lobbyist for the ACLU, said his organization has had more frustrations dealing with civil liberties issues this session than it has in the last three or four.
“I can’t help but think the fact that all of the members are up for re-election has something to do with that,” he said.
Feist, who testified against the body camera bill, said police groups have a “tremendous amount of influence” in most of the legislation his organization deals with.
He’s advocated for proposals that would require police to obtain warrants to do targeted surveillance with aerial drones, but said they weren’t moving forward because legislators wanted agreement from law enforcement.
Feist said the ACLU also worked on legislation to allow spouses to recover civilly forfeited assets from police, but couldn’t get a public hearing, along with another measure closing a loophole that allows authorities to access e-mail saved through Gmail accounts for over six months without a warrant.
“There are not a lot of lawmakers who are interested in pushing back too hard against law enforcement for the simple fact that they don’t want to be seen as soft on crime,” Feist said.
The House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee includes several members with law enforcement backgrounds. Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, and Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St Paul, are prosecutors; Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, is a police officer; and Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, is a retired deputy sheriff. Cornish, the sponsor of the House body camera bill and a Republican from Vernon Center, recently retired as a police officer and still has family members in law enforcement.
Flaherty said “it certainly has got to be helpful” to the MPPOA’s cause to have people in law enforcement on the committee that is considering the legislation.
“They can use their experience to help them educate themselves, and I’m sure that they probably have some influence on other members in the committee,” he said.
Like many lobbying groups at the Capitol, MPPOA endorses candidates and makes campaign contributions during election seasons. Flaherty said he’s repeatedly told members of the association to run for political office.
Andy Skoogman said that it’s important for the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, which was also involved with the body camera bill, to be part of the legislative process. But influence is the wrong word, he said, adding that it has a negative connotation.
He said the association has seen a dozen items this session of interest to law enforcement “that have gone nowhere,” including broader criminal background checks on gun sales.
After the Senate passed body camera legislation, it appeared stalled in the House. Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, did not schedule a hearing on the measure in the Civil Law and Data Practices Committee she chairs. But she was forced to move forward with it after her own proposal, which gave citizens more control over body cameras and the footage, failed to win support in her caucus and with law enforcement.
Lesch said opponents of the body camera legislation didn’t realize the battle was already over.
“As if it was going to be decided based on what was said at that committee,” he said.
Rich Neumeister, an open-government advocate who spoke against the body camera legislation, said law enforcement displayed immense power in that debate.
“Who can counterpunch?” he asked.
Recalling the body camera hearing, he said, “It was like Tony Cornish was the dummy and the ventriloquist was law enforcement.”
But law enforcement officials have accepted some compromises. For instance, legislators last week removed a controversial provision allowing police to redact their own images when releasing body camera videos.
Cornish disputed the assertion that law enforcement had any outsized influence or got everything it wanted.
“They just come up and present the facts,” he said. “I think the influence they have is just the fact that they don’t sensationalize anything.”