Just last year, the Minneapolis Police Department braced for the expected crowds of people eager to see what their officers were recording with their new body cameras.
So far, the newest movies in Minneapolis have been a box-office flop.
Since the city began outfitting each patrol officer with a camera last summer, the police Records Information Unit received only 25 requests for information that included body camera video, according to department data.
Five were from investigators and others within government; seven came from lawyers; three were from news media.
Only 10 individuals asked to see the video of encounters they or acquaintances had with officers.
These requests make up a tiny fraction of the overall workload for the records unit, which handles 2,000 to 3,000 requests for accident and crime reports every week.
Last year, the city hired two additional staff members to review and process body camera video, as part of the $4 million rollout that equipped more than 550 officers with the technology. The rapid adoption of body cameras by front-line officers is intended in part to shore up public confidence in police by improving transparency and accountability.
While the video is shared internally as part of investigations and prosecutions, the few outside requests for the data reveal that it is mainly about private disputes, such as custody battles and traffic accidents, rather than as a check on police misconduct.
After she was beset by a vicious dog in a south Minneapolis park last June, Rhonda Martinson called 911. The two officers responding helped her get away from the animal, but not before she injured herself trying to keep the dog behind a gate. Martinson asked for video of the incident in September, because she wanted a record in case she ever wanted to make an injury claim against the dog’s owner. She was told by the department that the video wasn’t available.
State law requires the department to erase any body camera video older than 90 days that isn’t part of an investigation.
In April, Graham Widmer had a terrifying encounter with a drug-addled man who was assaulting someone in a car near Widmer’s south Minneapolis house. After Widmer intervened, the man turned his rage toward him. He chased Widmer and his family into their house and tried to break down their door before police arrived.
Two days after the incident, Widmer requested the body camera video. The department told him they couldn’t give it to him because the case was still being investigated. “I just wanted to see what happened,” said Widmer, who is an attorney. After the denial, “I’m not sure I’m even going to pursue it,” he said.
The body camera videos would likely have been much more sought-after, but for the 2016 law that restricted access only to those who actually appear on the videos. People who have received body camera video from the Minneapolis police say the faces of others are pixelated and their voices are muted.
The law does allow anyone to see a small category of videos: those showing discharge of a weapon, or use of force that causes significant bodily harm. But those are also withheld until the end of the investigation.
Jeffrey Kuhn asked for police video that showed the removal of a drunken woman from a hotel earlier this year. He did it on behalf of a friend who has a child with the woman. “I thought, this is going to be gold for my friend, as far as custody,” Kuhn said.
But because Kuhn wasn’t in the video, he wasn’t allowed to see it.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.