Dayton sees 'serious defects' in body camera bill

Officer Chris Wicklund wears a camera
Legislation that would create statewide guidelines governing police use of body cameras is headed to Gov. Mark Dayton's desk. He doesn't yet know if he'll sign it. In this Nov. 5, 2014, file photo, Burnsville Police Department Sgt. Chris Wicklund wears a camera beneath his microphone.
Jim Mone | AP 2014

Legislation that would create statewide guidelines to govern police use of body cameras has passed both bodies of the state Legislature and is on the way to Gov. Mark Dayton's desk, who says he doesn't know yet whether he'll sign the bill.

Law enforcement agencies have clamored for more guidance on the programs, which agencies have adopted in response to public scrutiny of police use of force. But some critics say the final legislation is biased in favor of law enforcement.

The final incarnation of the bill makes public all footage that involves discharge of an officer's weapon or the use of force by an officer that results in "substantial bodily harm." All other footage is classified as private, although the subject of the footage can request the data themselves and release it.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he tried to balance the privacy interests of crime victims, witnesses and the general public against the need for more police accountability.

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"We tried to find a blend of that which would make default public the data that we felt was of most public significance, substantial use of force by police officers," Latz said. "For the rest of it, it doesn't automatically end up on YouTube."

The bill also sets minimum standards for how long agencies must retain body camera footage. Typical data that doesn't involve use of force or discharge of a firearm will be retained for at least 90 days. In the more serious incidents that are classified as public, agencies will need to retain the footage for at least one year.

Latz thinks the clarity provide by the legislation will lead to more agencies using body cameras.

"That will encourage police accountability," Latz said "I think everybody will be safer and more accountable on both sides of the camera as a result of this bill."

Critics of the bill are asking Dayton to veto it. ACLU of Minnesota legislative director Ben Feist said the bill undermines the goal of police body camera programs, which he says are designed to restore the public's trust in law enforcement.

"Classifying almost all of this body camera footage as private data will shield officer misconduct while also allowing police yet another tool for pervasive surveillance of our communities, and we think that's a problem," Feist said. "We think this is not a balanced bill, that it's really one sided in favor of the police."

Using a body camera
The final version of the bill makes public all footage that involves discharge of an officer's weapon or the use of force by an officer that results in "substantial bodily harm." In this Feb. 2, 2015, photo, a red light on the body camera worn by Duluth police officer Dan Merseth indicates it is active during a traffic stop.
Jim Mone | AP 2015

Another problem critics have with the bill is that it doesn't offer any guidance for when officers should activate cameras or when officers should inform members of the public that they're being recorded, Feist said.

"It's really going to be up to every department's policy across the state of Minnesota," Feist said. "We really believe there should be some statewide parameters so that what's happening in Minneapolis is the same thing that's happening in Duluth or Burnsville or anywhere else."

About 40 law enforcement agencies in the state currently have at least one body camera, said Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association executive director Andy Skoogman.

"The bill's data classification protects the privacy rights of victims, witness and average citizens, and also includes important safeguards that will ensure officer accountability and community transparency," Skoogman said.

The legislation was the result of 18 months of meetings, including with some critics, Skoogman said. One compromise he points to in the legislation would allow people filmed by police body cameras to get copies of the footage.

"If someone feels that they were treated unfairly, inappropriately or unconstitutionally, they have the legal right under this bill to obtain the footage, post it on their social media pages, and give it to the traditional media for all the public to see," Skoogman.

Opponents are vowing to push for more access to body camera footage at the Legislature next session. The bill's sponsor and law enforcement groups say they expect to make changes to statutes governing body cameras in the coming years as agencies get more experience with the programs.

Dayton said during a press availability on Monday that he hasn't yet decided whether to sign the bill into law.

"There are a lot of benefits to local law enforcement about establishing these guidelines and procedures in the statute," Dayton said. "But there are also some serious defects as well, and I haven't had a chance to assess or weigh it all in the balance."