Minnesota could soon adopt one of the nation’s more restrictive laws governing public access to footage recorded by police body cameras.
Over the protests of Chairwoman Rep. Peggy Scott, the House data practices committee approved legislation Tuesday evening that would give law enforcement more control over recordings they make during interactions with citizens.
Scott, R-Andover, voiced disappointment after the 11-2 vote, but said that she was unable to gather enough support for an alternate bill she authored that would give the public more ability to access recordings and require that cops ask permission before filming people in their homes.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center — and backed by law enforcement — is among legislative proposals around the country that would block public access to body camera footage. While many have stalled, restrictive laws have passed in South Carolina and Florida.
Cornish’s bill, which is closer to a law that recently passed the Senate, classifies body camera recordings as private unless they were filmed in a public place and the incident involved an officer’s use of a dangerous weapon or other force that caused “substantial bodily harm.” Other exceptions would be made for a subject in the video requesting that it be made public, provided that images of other citizens who did not want to be seen on the video are blurred out.
A law enforcement agency could withhold access to data that would otherwise be public, or redact it, if officials decide it would be “clearly offensive to common sensibilities.”
Cops could also have the power to redact their own images when citizens request a video.
The bill allows people to pursue a court action to authorize release of data classified as private. In deciding whether to give access to recordings, judges would have to consider whether the benefit outweighed any harm to making them public.
Scott set the tone for the hearing when she began with the disclaimer, “Most of the people here today know that I am not a big fan of this bill.”
She added: “I think it lacks transparency and does not protect privacy in our own homes, and I think as we go through the testimony … that that may become apparent.”
Critics dominated the debate, questioning how the police would define substantial bodily harm or offensive content, and whether those blurry definitions would give police too much power to restrict access to recordings.
Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, described the provisions for public access to the recordings as “unworkable.”
He said it would be impossible for cops to credibly analyze and redact images, and questioned the proposal allowing courts to order disclosure.
“Pardon me if I don’t stand up and say, ‘Hallelujah!’ ” said Anfinson, adding that public-records challenges are expensive, slow and unpredictable. “It’s not a way to get public access.”
Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, told the panel that police body cameras were of great importance to black communities. She has been an outspoken critic of police conduct in the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark, an incident during which cops did not wear body cameras.
But she lamented that the proposal was tilted too much in favor of the police, and that recordings of public interactions could be used by prosecutors against citizens.
“It weighs too heavily in favor of the perspective of law enforcement at a time in which trust by the African-American communities and other communities of color in law enforcement is at an all-time low,” she said.
Levy-Pounds objected to a provision allowing officers to review video footage before submitting incident reports. And she said the threshold at which the data was released to the public was too high. As an attorney, she said she receives numerous calls from people who allege that they’ve been choked, slammed to the ground, or otherwise harmed by law enforcement, but that the incidents might not rise to the level of “substantial bodily harm” that the bill describes as a threshold for publicizing videos.
“At the end of the day, it’s more important to take the time and do this right than to hastily enact legislation that is going to cause more harm than good,” said Levy-Pounds.
Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, acknowledged that lobbying by law enforcement at the Capitol had shaped the measure.
“To their credit, they’ve been very effective at lobbying,” he said. “And they’ve got some talented people lobbying, but we haven’t necessarily had an effective pushback to find that middle ground.”
He said the hearing prompted more questions than answers.
“I think it could stand more vetting,” he said.
Cornish stood by his legislation, saying that police departments needed more footage, and the ability to classify some of it as private.
The legislation heads Wednesday to the public safety committee he chairs, before going for a vote on the House floor.