Dozens of police departments are pressing the Legislature to approve guidelines for the use of body cameras, but the session’s end is nearing with no agreement on crucial areas of privacy and consent.
Champlin Police Chief David Kolb said he wants to outfit his officers with body cameras but won’t do it until his concerns are addressed about how the data will be protected.
“I can’t make that recommendation with the laws as they currently stand,” he said.
Minnesota law enforcement agencies are increasingly outfitting officers with cameras amid growing public demand for more accountability. Minneapolis police involved in the fatal shooting last fall of Jamar Clark, which triggered protests, were not wearing body cameras, but the city is now rolling out 600 cameras for officers.
Legislators are enmeshed in a roiling national debate as states try to sort out how best to use the new technology while also ensuring residents’ privacy when they have a run-in with police.
Failure to act by legislators has left a patchwork of regulations across Minnesota as communities sort out when the cameras must be turned on, how data are stored and who can view the footage.
The issue is not only a matter of interest to big-city police forces. Small-town departments like Kolb’s hope that body cameras will assist in better policing and evidence collection in even routine cases, such as those involving domestic violence.
In Minnesota, the debate most recently has snagged on what is proving a difficult question: Do authorities need consent to record?
The Senate recently passed body camera legislation that sponsor Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, described as preserving privacy rights while giving police the latitude they need to record people in emergency situations. But the House has not moved on that measure, as Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, pushes a proposal that gives residents more say over when cops record them.
Scott, who has taken a lead on the issue in the House, acknowledged the wide gulf between the various proposals.
“Balancing the public safety needs of law enforcement and the personal privacy of Minnesota citizens — all while creating transparent policy — is rarely simple, and this issue exemplifies that ongoing dialogue,” Scott said in a prepared statement.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, chairman of the House public safety committee, said he is “really optimistic” that all sides will reach an agreement before the session adjourns May 23.
One of the major sticking points is whether cops responding to an emergency call need permission from residents before turning on the cameras. The Senate proposal supported by the state’s police chiefs association allows officers to record during most emergency responses. A House proposal requires them to get consent when they’re on private property unless they have a warrant or there are other pressing circumstances. The plan also makes an exception for reports of domestic abuse.
But critics find this approach hugely problematic in the scope of everyday police work.
“If the officer has to make a decision about who in the room has legal authority to grant consent for recording, it will create chaos in the house,” Latz said.
He, too, noted the problems surrounding body cameras and domestic calls. Latz described an example in which a cop shows up to a house where a husband is beating his wife. Should the man be able to tell the officer not to record? What if the wife is embarrassed at being filmed or feels pressured to side with her husband? Latz said there were too many legal and logistical issues for an officer to deal with when responding to an emergency call.
Kolb said asking people for consent before recording them is impractical.
“It may be a heat-of-the-moment issue; it may just be more going on than the officer can deal with already. Then, to throw that on top of it just becomes really problematic,” he said.
Finding the balance
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota says residents need more say before they are recorded. A lobbyist for the organization said body cameras have enormous potential to restore the public’s trust in law enforcement — but only if there’s a balance between privacy for residents and accountability for officers.
The organization wants to see a measure passed this year, but not a hastily approved one that tramples over people’s right to privacy.
“We believe that it’s better for civil liberties to take a little bit more time to fix this and not push something through in the short time we have left,” said Benjamin Feist, a lobbyist for the organization.
He is also concerned about the Senate proposal to keep most of the body camera footage private, which means the broader community will not see any improved transparency or accountability.
“We don’t necessarily want to encourage that extra surveillance … unless there’s going to be a really positive impact of accountability and transparency for the community,” Feist said.
The Senate bill allows the footage to be public if it was taken in public areas and involved a deadly weapon or use of excessive force. Residents recorded in videos could access and release them to the public if they wanted to hold the police accountable for improper conduct. Footage that is part of ongoing criminal investigations would still be protected from public view.
The House’s measure allows footage to be accessible to the public if it records police force that causes significant injury.
The Senate version also gives police authority to watch video from their body cameras before writing incident reports or giving statements related to the incident, a provision supported by police departments. The House version prohibits officers from reviewing footage before writing a report, making it easier for defense attorneys to raise doubts when a video conflicts with an officer’s account of an incident.
“I’m not sure I understand the logic of prohibiting them from watching these — it feels to me like kind of a ‘gotcha,’ where you’re trying to set the officer up to do an inaccurate report,” Latz said.
Critics say this would allow officers to alter their initial perceptions of what happened and rely on videos that could omit important details.
New Ulm Police Chief Myron Wieland said his department is testing in-squad cameras but will wait for legislative action to outfit all 22 officers with body cameras. While he described his town as a “sleepy hollow” as far as crime goes, the chief said it could be useful during domestic incidents, possibly if a victim or offender recants or changes his or her story.
“There’s a societal expectation for us to have something in addition to eyewitness testimony of an officer to corroborate,” Wieland said.