The Minnesota Senate for the first time Thursday passed a measure regulating the use of video gathered by police body cameras, but their House counterparts say the move could derail a larger initiative three years in the making to regulate information gleaned from other high-tech law enforcement equipment.
After a 90-minute debate, the Senate voted 34-25 to pass a series of regulations for the still-fledgling devices — worn by a handful of police departments across the state — that would largely classify the video they gather as private.
Controversy on the Senate floor focused less on the regulations themselves than on how they were presented. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, presented the body-camera regulations as an amendment to his bill regulating the use of automated license-plate readers. For the third consecutive session, legislators have sparred over whether license-plate “hits” on innocent people should be deleted immediately from police data files or kept temporarily and, if so, for how long. If the Legislature doesn’t act this year, that information will become public in August.
Latz said that — amendment or not — body-camera data is becoming more ubiquitous, and with privacy at risk, it needs to be regulated.
“This is the last train out of the station for this bill,” he said shortly before the vote. “They are here, they are continuing to grow in use in Minnesota whether we take any action or not.”
Thursday’s Senate vote could create turmoil among House members who elected not to take up the body-camera bill this year, but will now likely be forced to confront it when they hash out an agreement on the license-plate-reader bill.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said that the House is steadfast on not passing a body-camera measure this year and that if the issue is forced, it could sink license-plate-reader regulations as well. “I don’t want body cameras shoved down our throats when we haven’t heard it in our committees,” Cornish said. “The world isn’t going to end if we don’t have body-camera and license-plate-reader regulation, so what [the Senate] is doing is giving the very real possibility that we will lose both.”
Cornish sponsored the body-camera measure in the House, but said the House Civil Law Committee didn’t want to regulate the devices in 2015.
The legislation would make audio and video from body cameras nonpublic unless the recording was made in public and involved the use of a dangerous weapon by a police officer, or physical coercion by an officer that caused substantial bodily harm — such as bone fractures or injuries to organs. Subjects captured in the body-camera video would also be able to request that the data be made public.
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, backed the amendment, saying that although she wished it were presented as a stand-alone bill, unrest between citizens and police in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., warrant quick action.
“I think transparency is the greatest strength we have in combating what has become a very divisive issue and affects public safety way more than one crime or another,” Bonoff said. “If we have a lack of trust between police and the citizens they are there to protect, then we really have a disintegration of safety in our communities.”