Police across the nation are going Hollywood, but in Minnesota, don’t expect to get invited to a screening any time soon.
A bill setting policy on police body cameras is likely to land on Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk any day. If he signs it, the state will squander the promise of bodycams to improve public trust in police.
It will also send citizens a message: Keep making your own video when you see cops on the street.
Because only in rare circumstances will you ever see what’s captured on police bodycams.
The bodycam bill passed with the full-throated support of law enforcement lobbyists but over the objections of transparency advocates, including the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (on whose board I serve).
Thanks to pressure on Dayton and lawmakers, particularly from the St. Paul NAACP, the bill improved in a conference committee Friday. Lawmakers removed an absurd distinction that made video public if an officer shoots or injures someone in public, but private if it happens inside a house.
In the revised bill, the public will have access to recordings from body cameras that document police firing a weapon or using force that results in substantial bodily harm. But only once the investigation is over, meaning the police now have the ability to withhold the video for months.
Access to bodycam video has become the most significant open government issue of our time. If cameras are rolling every time an officer responds to a 911 call, all sorts of sticky issues about privacy come up.
The solution that lawmakers chose, though, turns body cameras into little more than a new method of surveillance.
The bill allows police to record their interactions with crime suspects, victims and the public with the knowledge that they will, in almost all cases, never become public. It treats body camera video differently from squad car video, which the law requires in some instances to be made public even before an investigation is completed.
Even in cases where force is used, police can withhold video if it’s “clearly offensive to common sensibilities,” a vague description that’s an invitation to hide embarrassing or damning footage.
Someone who is the “subject” of a video (often someone who has called an officer for help, or is being arrested) has the right to see it. That probably won’t do much good for people in jail. Or dead people.
Unlike most other police records, which become public when an investigation is closed, body camera video that doesn’t show use of force or discharge of a weapon stays secret.
Anyone who wants to spend thousands on lawyers can go to court to try to get a video released. It’s likely that videos in controversial cases will eventually emerge in court anyway. But that’s no substitute for real transparency.
Since the beating of Rodney King a quarter-century ago, video has transformed the public’s view of law enforcement. It can show how dangerous the job can be. Last week, Brooklyn Park police released the dashcam video of a felon’s violent assault on an officer after a traffic stop.
It can also show officers going over the line, something that political leaders and police have always mentioned as a justification for spending millions on body cameras.
One year ago, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau made an unusual request as she dealt with public outrage over a 10-year-old boy hit with pepper spray at a demonstration downtown. Harteau asked for witnesses to come forward to help investigate what happened.
“We need to see any and all video, from all angles in this case,” she said.
That’s what the public has been saying to police. It’s a shame that lawmakers aren’t listening.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at email@example.com or 612-673-4116.