Bill to keep police body cam video private raises alarm

Officer Chris Wicklund wears a camera
In this Nov. 5, 2014, file photo, Burnsville Police Department Sgt. Chris Wicklund wears a body camera.
Jim Mone / AP 2014

A bill introduced in the Minnesota House on Thursday would keep any videos recorded by police body cameras private, alarming those who say it would hinder efforts to hold police accountable.

Sponsors say the cameras are likely to record embarrassing personal information about people dealing with police at extremely traumatic points in their lives.

But others say if the videos are kept secret it defeats the purpose of the cameras, which is to record how officers interact with the public — and serve as a check on police abusing their authority.

A handful of police departments across Minnesota already are using body cameras.

State law requires body camera video to be accessible to the public. But some lawmakers say it should be private to protect the public from embarrassing situations.

"You could have a half naked housewife that's been beat up with a bloody face, half naked kids running around," said state Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center. "You could have a gun collection. That information needs to remain private."

Cornish, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, introduced a bill that would classify the video from body cameras as private data accessible only to law enforcement and the subjects of the video. He said privacy concerns and the cost of redacting data are the reasons to keep the videos confidential.

"Naturally, it's going to be something other than public," Cornish said. "You aren't going to have huge amounts of footage of innocent people, put into storage or a hard drive and allow people to walk in and get it."

Cornish's bill also requires police departments to destroy any data not involved in an active or inactive criminal investigation after 90 days.

State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, agrees that body camera video should be private. Latz, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the Legislature needs to act with urgency because some police departments already are using body cameras.

"I don't think we have much of a choice but to struggle to get our arms around it," Latz said. "Here's a case where technology is out a little bit ahead of public policy."

The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association supports Cornish's bill. But several groups are lining up in opposition.

Ben Feist, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said body cam video should be public. He said that's the only way the public will know if a police officer crosses the line.

"Our concern is that if you make it too private, the whole idea that we are able to use the body cameras to watch the police, to turn this around and say this is surveillance of law enforcement, really falls by the wayside," he said.

Feist said he's open to keeping some video private, including footage taken in a private residence or pictures of a police informant.

But Minnesota Newspaper Association lobbyist Mark Anfinson said all the video should be public. Anfinson, who has represented several news organizations including MPR News, said there already are privacy protections in place that address Cornish's concerns.

"The more you talk about this and think through the ramifications of what sort of video may actually be acquired, it does get complex," Anfinson said. "But you know what? You can't let complexity paralyze you."

Others worry over what police will do with the video. State Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said police could look up, copy and share certain video. Scott points to a case where a state Department of Natural Resources employee looked up her driver's license data and that of others.

"It's not a good feeling to know that you're the subject of something like that" Scott said. "I don't distrust law enforcement but I know human nature."

Lawmakers hope they can compromise before the end of session. But some are already suggesting a commission may be established to study the issue if no agreement is reached by May.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.