A proposal by a trio of cops-turned-legislators would shield almost all footage shot by police body cameras from public eyes, in what they say is an effort to protect citizens’ privacy.

But advocates of open government say keeping the footage under lock and key undermines attempts to keep police accountable.

The measure filed Thursday is the first legislative effort to regulate the use of the video recording devices worn by police. Footage shot by body cameras would not be available to the public, although individuals captured in the videos would be allowed access. Agencies would be required to keep meticulous records and to destroy any video that is not part of an investigation.

Bill sponsors include Republican Reps. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center and Brian Johnson of Cambridge, both retired law enforcement officers, and DFL Rep. Dan Schoen, of St. Paul Park, who is a police officer in Cottage Grove.

Schoen said that the bill is intended to start discussion and that the key concern is maintaining citizen privacy. Body cameras are running when police enter homes, hospitals or other private places, when people are at their most vulnerable. Ensuring that just anyone can’t access that footage is paramount, he said.

“We want to make sure we remove all the barriers possible that make people want to ask for help,” Schoen said.

Privacy vs. transparency

Matt Ehling, who heads the legislative issues committee for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), argues that the bill would make a major change in how data are handled under state law. The true value of police body cameras lies in the transparency they provide, he said. Much of the video collected, Ehling said, would already be considered classified under the state Data Practices Act, including ongoing investigations, sexual assault victims, juveniles and undercover officers.

“The general rule is that the video should be accessible, but I think the Legislature should say ‘Here are certain situations where you should not record that stuff,’ and that’s where privacy interests will be protected,” Ehling said.

Body cameras are being used by police in Burnsville, Duluth and Minneapolis, which is in the midst of a pilot program. A few other departments use a handful of body cameras, as well. Each department has crafted its own policy regarding the devices, but the footage is public under state law, with a few exceptions. The state’s Information Policy Analysis Division denied a request by the Duluth Police Department to temporarily classify its footage as private.

Why police chiefs like bill

Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said the organization has prioritized setting up parameters for how the devices are used. Skoogman said the chiefs like the bill for three reasons: It keeps police accountable, protects departments from costly and time-consuming editing to protect compromising information before footage is released and the subjects of the footage could access the videos and do whatever they like with them.

A survey of Minnesota police departments found that out of most who responded, 70 percent see the value of body cameras — a shift from previous years, he said.

Skoogman said there is no harm in preventing just anyone from accessing body camera footage, as long as the subjects of the footage may do so.

“What is the public interest in seeing people in some of the worst moments of their lives?” he asked. “There has to be a reasonable expectation of privacy for people in this state and in this country.”

What’s next

The bill heads next to the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, where substantial debate is near certain.

The committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, takes issue with body cameras in an era of growing concern over law enforcement surveillance.

“Unfortunately, because law enforcement has taken it upon themselves to get this sort of surveillance without consulting the Legislature first,” she said, “the Legislature now has to address it because we need to have some sort of policy in place.”