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 the use of 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 may be reluctant to give a statement if they knew the footage could be public. Current law does not adequately address the issue of addressing both a citizen's right to privacy and the public's right to information, they argued.

"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 [compromised] state due to their life circumstances or the nature of their victimization?" Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell wrote in the Sept. 14 application letter. "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 turn private data that is already public under state statutes—such as public arrests, responses or request for police services.

"That decision, however, is not a conclusion that the law adequately addresses the complex and sensitive data circumstances that arise with the use of body cameras." Massman wrote.

Massman noted that the application raises important questions of how the state should balance the public's access to data with their own right to privacy in the wake of the new technology.

"Minnesota's data practices are designed to be neutral to technology," Massman wrote. "The reality is, however, that 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. However, the House rejected the amendment. The issue is almost certain to arise again when the Legislature reconvenes in March 2016.

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