Minnesota cities asking state to restrict body camera data

Using a body camera
A red light on the body camera worn on Duluth police officer Dan Merseth's uniform indicates it is active during a February traffic stop in Duluth.
Jim Mone | AP

Updated: 5:39 p.m. | Posted: 8:55 a.m.

Sixteen Minnesota cities are petitioning 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.

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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.

Police Chief Paul Schnell of Maplewood, who wrote the application for the classification, said that under the request, video that is no longer in use as part of an active investigation, would be available to the subject of the video. Schnell said that the subject of the video could then post it to social media or hand it off to the press.

Under current law, — with a few exceptions — once an investigation is complete, anyone can request and receive the documentation from a case including body camera video.

Cities making the request

• Aitkin
• Baxter
• Big Lake
• Brainerd
• Brooklyn Park
• Burnsville
• Farmington
• Grand Rapids
• Jordan
• Maplewood
• Montevideo
• Onamia
• Richfield
• Rochester
• St. Anthony
• Starbuck

Cities expressing support in letters to the agency commissioner

• Bloomington
• Duluth
• Eden Prairie
• Madelia
• Maple Grove
• Mounds View
• Oak Park Heights
• Plymouth
• Worthington

MPR New's Brandt Williams contributed to this report.