16 Minn. cities press for body-camera footage restrictions
Applicants say limitations are justified because footage of encounters can be highly emotional or in private spaces
By Brian Bakst
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Sixteen Minnesota cities have petitioned the state for a temporary declaration that police body-camera data be presumed private in most instances.
An application for the data classification was filed late Monday with the Department of Administration, which must decide within the next three months. It's the latest move to put limits around footage collected by the small devices that more police officers are wearing to record their interactions with the public.
"Body worn camera technology presents privacy concerns of a nature not previously anticipated or foreseen," the cities write in the application, noting the volumes of data captured that cities could be expected to sort through to comply with public records requests.
Gov. Mark Dayton's administration, which will decide the request, rejected a similar request last winter and said it was an issue better suited for state lawmakers. The Legislature deadlocked this spring so city officials want to wall off the data while lawmakers revisit the topic next year.
The new effort — led by Maplewood and involving departments large and small — comes as law enforcement agencies across the state look to introduce or expand body-camera programs. Some cities in the coalition don't plan to outfit officers with the devices until data retention and release policies are settled by the state.
Transparency advocates counter that clamping down on data would weaken the cameras as police accountability tools.
Benjamin Feist, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said the issue poses a tricky balance because his group supports some limitations on data collected from inside private dwellings or from victims and informants. But he said the cities' request goes too far.
"We see the value of body cameras is that we're able to see what the police are doing for once," Feist said, adding, "We want to make sure that they are not just shielding officer misconduct by making this private under the guise of trying to protect the privacy of individuals they are running into on the streets."
Applicants say limitations are justified because police encounters with the public can be highly emotional or inside bathrooms, bedrooms or hospitals.
"Unlike police squad car cameras, body-worn cameras collect video footage inside people's homes, schools and medical facilities, where there is a reasonable privacy expectation," Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Andy Skoogman wrote in a letter supporting the classification request. "These cameras capture incidents up close often during traumatic, revealing and personal incidents."
Existing law makes some data off-limits if, for example, footage is part of a sensitive investigation or could expose children who are suspected abuse victims. But police chiefs are questioning whether those laws go far enough and they are raising concerns that unfettered access to footage would hamper witness cooperation with law enforcement if they know their identities would leak out.
The request would leave room for footage release if the subject of the data requests it, but with possible redactions. Data deemed "clearly offensive to common sensibilities," such as nudity or gruesome crime scenes, may be withheld.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press