Police body cameras reveal Minnesota life laid bare

Image from body cam
In this Feb. 2, 2015 photo, police officer Dan Merseth points to an image on his computer that was made by the body camera, left, he was wearing during a shoplifting investigation in Duluth, Minn.
Jim Mone | AP

Body camera advocates say giving the public access to footage of police in action will make cops more accountable.

But that police video also records many citizens at their most vulnerable. Should the public be able to see that, too? It's a question Minnesota lawmakers are struggling now to answer.

To get a better sense of the debate and the concerns, MPR News and KARE11 requested all the video recorded on one Saturday evening in March by officers in Minneapolis, Duluth, Burnsville and Farmington.

The video opens a new window into the day-to-day life of a cop — navigating language barriers at a traffic stop, executing arrest warrants, defusing family fights.

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It also captures victims, witnesses and people who are just plain distressed, illustrating the difficult choice facing lawmakers as they seek to balance privacy and transparency.

In one of the videos, a woman who lives in a group home for people with traumatic brain injuries and persistent mental health problems called Duluth police because she wasn't getting along with the other people at the facility.

Duluth: A woman in distress at group home

"I get ignored around here and everything," she says.

"Is it just one person that you have a problem with?" the officer asks.

"I guess no one likes me here," the woman replies. "Nobody cares here. I keep getting emotionally abused. I can't take it anymore."

There's no reason other people need to see a video like that, said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. "Most of the things we do — and when we encounter the public — it really doesn't need to be shared with the world."

Flaherty supports a bill that passed the state Senate last week but stalled in the House. It would allow public release of body camera videos only when the officer used a dangerous weapon or otherwise seriously injured someone, and then only if the incident happened on the street or some other public place.

Body camera videos recorded inside private homes would be available to the people shown in the video, but not the general public.

Flaherty worries that without those protections, the cameras could create an unprecedented invasion of privacy. "Embarrassing members of the public certainly doesn't do anything to address police accountability," he said.

Transparency advocates, however, say the proposed restrictions go way too far.

Most body camera videos should remain available to the public, said Don Gemberling, spokesman for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.

"Because of the nature of the technology, I can see some situations in which maybe the law needs to be tweaked," he said. "But it's not a situation where we say everything about police interactions with the public are private. That is just bad policy."

Gemberling notes that police reports document the same difficult situations as the cameras do, and they've always been public.

There are already privacy protections in place for juvenile offenders and the victims of sex crimes. Videos that are part of an active criminal investigation are also protected under current law, as are images considered "offensive to common sensibilities."

If the Legislature makes almost all the videos private, it will undermine the very purpose of body cameras — to show the public what the police are doing, especially when there are complaints, he added.

"I don't think this is about victims," Gemberling said. "I think it's all about some police people not wanting to have what would be strongest possible accountability tool available to the public."

Police departments in Minnesota have received relatively few requests from members of the general public to view their body camera videos. Duluth and Minneapolis report only about a dozen total requests combined.

The nine hours of video released by the departments don't show anything resembling police misconduct. And there's only one hint of the racial tensions between police and black citizens that have been in the national spotlight since last year's riots in Ferguson, Mo.

Burnsville: Missing woman with Alzheimer's disease

Note: This video includes language that may offend some people.

A Burnsville man named Herb Wilburn called 911, because his mother wandered off. The conversation goes:

Wilburn: "Hey guys, how you doing?"

Officer: "How you doing?"

Wilburn: "We're looking for my mom. She has Alzheimer's."

Officer: "Just keep your hands out of your pockets."

(Wilburn, who's black, is clearly offended by that.)

Wilburn: "How the (expletive) we going to call you if you going to tell me to keep my hands out of my pockets. We're calling about my mom with Alzheimer's."

Officer: "Yeah. I get it. Relax. Everybody."

Wilburn: "I can't be relaxed."

Officer: "I don't know you."

Wilburn: "I don't know you either."

Officer: "You want help or not."

Wilburn: "Man, go to hell, all right? I'll call my wife, we'll go look for her."

Officer: "OK."

Wilburn: "You go about your business."

After Wilburn sent the police away that night, his ex-wife Janice Freeman called them back because her mother-in-law was still missing.

Freeman remains close to Wilburn and is grateful that the police helped find his mother.

She also said she was glad the public could see how the police interacted with her ex-husband.

"I just don't know if they would have reacted the same way if it had been a white male in the same circumstance," she said. "If I call you here to help me, and then you treat me as if I'm the criminal, then it's no wonder they get so much negativity."

Still, it bothers her that they recorded her without her permission and that the public has access to it.

"I didn't call them there because I wanted it to be a public matter," she said. "I called them there because I wanted them to help me find my mother-in-law."

In the nine hours of body camera footage reviewed by MPR News and KARE11, not one officer mentioned the cameras were rolling. The Minnesota Senate last week rejected an amendment that would have required officers in most situations to get permission before using their cameras in a private home.

Minneapolis: Domestic fight over child custody

Officers sometimes call attention to the cameras if they think it will help de-escalate a situation, but as a general rule, they don't mention it, said Burnsville Police Captain Tanya Schwartz.

"It's just a matter of it's their equipment," Schwartz said. "It's like, 'Hey I have a gun on me. Hey I have a Taser on me.' We haven't had big discussions about should they be doing that every time, and maybe that's something we can look at in the future."

Most of the body camera video released by the departments is innocuous. Because videos involved in active criminal investigations aren't public, there are hardly any arrests. None show any use of force. But there is one deeply disturbing image.

Two officers walk into a Minneapolis apartment. Family members had called because they were worried the woman who lived there might want to hurt herself. They were too late.

The camera briefly pans over the woman's dead body.

"Oh Jesus!" one of the officers exclaims.

The Minneapolis Police Department says releasing the whole video was a mistake. Under current law, it could have edited out the image of the body.

The woman's mother, who didn't want her name in this story to protect her daughter's privacy, said when she learned the video had been released, she began experiencing chest pains.

She was rushed to the hospital, where she stayed for a day and a half. Doctors determined it was stress related. She says she's talking to lawyers, because she feels the city violated her privacy.

MPR News' Trisha Volpe contributed to this report.