A state agency on Monday rejected a move by several Minnesota police departments to classify body camera footage as private, saying that state law should clarify how the data is handled in the wake of the fast-growing technology.
The request, made by the city of Maplewood and joined by 18 law enforcement agencies across the state, asked Department of Administration Commissioner Matt Massman to temporarily classify the footage as private unless it involves the use of a dangerous weapon by an officer or physical force by an officer that causes bodily harm.
The Sept. 14 application letter notes the concern by officers over victims of domestic violence or sexual assault who might be reluctant to give a statement if they knew the footage could be public. They say the law now does not adequately address how to balance a citizen's right to privacy against the public's right to information.
"This balancing test begs the question: Is public purpose served by allowing unfettered public access to body-worn data showing a victim in distress, a person experiencing traumatic stress, vulnerable or mentally ill person in a comprised [sic] state due to their life circumstances or the nature of their victimization?" Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell wrote in the Sept. 14 application. "If the answer is 'yes' then does a citizen's constitutionally protected right to privacy outweigh the public's right to access the body camera data?"
In his rejection letter, Massman wrote that he could not grant the request because it would take data that already is public under state statutes, such as public arrests, responses or request for police services, and make it private.
Massman wrote that such a decision "is not a conclusion that the law adequately addresses the complex and sensitive data circumstances that arise with the use of body cameras."
He noted that there is a need for greater guidance in the face of technology that can capture intimate details.
"Minnesota's data practices are designed to be neutral to technology," Massman wrote, but "body cams have the potential to collect substantial amounts of video and audio in private and very sensitive circumstances. Body cam data can include much greater detail than might be contained in a written law enforcement report, such as footage of a private home and personal belongings. Greater statutory clarity regarding how data practices laws should apply to such data would provide essential guidance for all interested stakeholders."
Efforts to limit access to police body camera footage stalled in the Legislature. The Senate passed a series of regulations for the still-fledgling devices — worn by a handful of police departments across the state — that would largely classify the video they gather as private. The House rejected the amendment. The issue is almost certain to arise again when the Legislature reconvenes in March.