Body cameras inside jails raise security and privacy questions

A police officer in a white shirt clips a body camera onto his tie.
Jail commander Roger Heinen puts on a body camera in his office at the Washington County jail in Stillwater on July 18, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Normally there would be a few dozen inmates walking around the area or sitting around one of the televisions on the fourth level of the Washington County jail. But on a recent weekday morning, the space is empty.

"We had an incident this morning with a disruptive inmate, so we had to lock down to get more resources to deal with that inmate," said jail commander Roger Heinen.

It’s the type of incident in which deputies are required to activate their body cameras.

Heinen likes the cameras that resemble smartphones mounted to deputies’ uniforms. The body-worn devices are able to record incidents that the more than 200 mounted cameras do not: video inside of jail cells as well as audio.

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"As you know, correctional officers can be accused of a lot of various things, whether it's simple things like name calling, [or] use of force, sexual assault," said Heinen. "Having that recording really protects us, that we can show the judge or the attorneys or even the administration — this is what really happened."

Washington County Sheriff's Office is the rare Minnesota sheriff’s office that equips both deputies and jail staff with body cameras.

But the videos they record are subject to different laws.

Minnesota state law makes most video collected by law enforcement officers private, with a few exceptions. That law regulates data captured by “peace officers” licensed by a state board.

But a different Minnesota law covers data collected by corrections officers, including jail deputies in Washington County and elsewhere. That law does not specifically mention video recorded by personnel.

And some say that makes regulating the use of cameras in jails tricky.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said there are “a number of problems and inconsistencies” in Minnesota law governing bodycam use. The department will begin equipping its deputies on patrol and in the jail with cameras later this year.

Fletcher said body cameras can provide transparency and help build community trust in law enforcement. That has become a more urgent matter, said Fletcher, after video taken in 2016 showing jail staff punching and kneeing a handcuffed man surfaced earlier this year.

An American flag, badge, tie and body camera on a white shirt.
Jail commander Heinen wears a body camera inside of the Washington County jail. The camera is also a cellphone.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said the incident, which occurred under a different administration, was recorded by a jail supervisor using a hand-held camera.

Fletcher said given the privacy and security restrictions in the jail, there's only so much transparency body cameras can provide.

"Even the physical layout of the jail has been deemed to be security information," said Fletcher. "Where the doors are, how the doors are opened and accessed, where the inmates are allowed and not allowed — all those pieces of the puzzle become problematic with regards to security."

Jails are not public spaces. The Ramsey County sheriff said videos may also capture other inmates who don't wish to be identified. And he said he doesn't want to see video used to embarrass or shame people who are in custody.

Much of the debate over the state’s bodycam law focused on incidents in which police officers use deadly force, like shootings. The law states that when officers use force that results in “substantial bodily harm,” video of those incidents are public. Inside jails, the incidents could involve less deadly means of controlling inmates.

“Tasers are right on the borderline as to whether or not that is a use of force that would require some public notification,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said ultimately, the state Legislature is going to need to revise the law to make it more specific to body camera data captured by corrections officers.

Ben Feist, chief program officer for the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU, said jail staff should be required to notify inmates when they activate their cameras. He also favors a strict policy determining when deputies may turn the cameras on and off. Without the policy, Feist worries inmates’ rights may be violated.

“There will be issues coming up where inmates will want to see what was captured and if that's information that's not available for them to review then we're going to have even more imbalances and issues to deal with," he said.

Like Fletcher, Feist wants the Legislature to clarify the law as it pertains to body camera footage collected in jails.

Assistant Washington County Attorney Rick Hodsdon said it's clear to him that when there's a dispute, the legal standard is the same for corrections officers as it is for cops.

"If an individual believes they're a victim of improper use of force, they always have the same remedy, which is a civil lawsuit,” he said. “And in the course of civil discovery that video will be produced."

Hodsdon, who also serves as legal counsel for the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, said he's currently only aware of two agencies which have equipped jail staff with cameras: Washington and Dakota Counties.

He said more, like Ramsey County, will probably follow. Hodsdon doesn't have data to show changes inside the jails using cameras. But he said he's hearing anecdotal evidence that body cameras on correctional officers is moderating the behavior of inmates.

"When the inmate knows that they're being videoed, their behavior, their language, the cursing, the disrespect ... that seems to lessen," he said.

Dakota County officials say the introduction of cameras four years ago has played a role in improving the atmosphere there.

Joe Leko, chief deputy for administration at the Dakota County Sheriff's Office said fewer inmates file complaints against jail staff.

The number of use-of-force reports filed for incidents in the jail has fallen from 26 in 2014 — the year before cameras were implemented — down to five in 2018. Leko said the significant decrease is likely due to a combination of cameras and new deescalation training introduced during that period.

Now, the county is preparing to place cameras on patrol deputies.

Two of the state's largest corrections agencies — Hennepin County and the Minnesota Department of Corrections — do not equip their correctional staff with cameras. A Corrections spokesperson said the state agency is considering whether to do so in the future.

A Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said it is currently working on a body camera implementation program, and it may not include cameras for jail personnel.