From the 1991 Rodney King beating in California to the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, nothing had more impact on the public than the video evidence. And, in cities across the nation, video of police-citizen interactions have helped inform the debate over police conduct.
In fact, that’s the point behind efforts to equip all cops with body cameras. Along with dashcams, surveillance camera footage and cellphone video, body cams can help give the most accurate accounts of what happens as police officers do their jobs.
However, the body-camera bill passed by the Minnesota Senate this week tilts too heavily toward police control of the video and limits public access. It should not be approved by the Legislature.
Authored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the bill would allow the public to see footage only if it were taken on public property and involves police use of force that results in substantial bodily harm. Individuals involved in the incidents could get the video and make it public — but only after an effort is made to redact the identities of others in the video who don’t sign off and after the active investigation is done. Police or the courts could also order a video released.
Yet many of the incidents in which video evidence is critical occur in apartments, homes or on other private property. That footage should be available for public scrutiny when questions are raised about how officers handled those calls.
Concerns about privacy are important and merit more discussion. So are the issues raised about consent — whether those shown in videos need to give permission for their images or footage of their homes to be public. Other issues that deserve more scrutiny include whether officers should be allowed to review footage before they write their reports, as well as how long the video should be stored. Keep in mind, though, that existing freedom-of-information laws already take some of those concerns into account, allowing officials to shield sensitive information.
Some law enforcement officials have pressed for state guidance this year as they roll out their body-camera programs. Later this month, the Minneapolis Police Department will begin deploying the first of the 600 small cameras that all patrol officers eventually will wear. St. Paul police intend to test body cameras this summer in anticipation of a departmentwide rollout sometime in 2017. That will add the Twin Cities to a list of about 40 law enforcement agencies around Minnesota with body-worn cameras. Those departments set their own rules, consistent with current state data privacy laws and practices.
Don Gemberling, with the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), says that passing no bill this session would be better than a policy weighted toward law enforcement and less transparency. In addition to the MNCOGI, the St. Paul and Minneapolis NAACP chapters and the Minnesota Newspaper Association oppose the Senate bill.
The primary purpose for body cameras is to give police and the public more accurate information about interactions between citizens and law enforcement. The Legislature has more work to do to come up with a bill that balances access and privacy and, as Gemberling suggests, no bill would be better than the poorly conceived version passed by the Senate.