When Burnsville police first experimented with taping police interactions, size was an issue in more ways than one. The bulky, mid-1990s era video camera mounted on dashboards made driving more difficult, and the storage of reams of VHS tapes was a logistical nuisance.
Nowadays, small cameras fit comfortably as an attachment to an officer’s uniform, and the resulting “tape” could fit into his breast pocket.
If the size problem is solved, many others are not, as revealed in a Tuesday morning House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee hearing. Some legislators seemed to be puzzling through how to govern the use of police body cameras, though each acknowledged the new tool’s potential usefulness for police and citizens.
Public access, privacy concerns, the cost and method of storage, maintenance and redaction of videos, and when a body camera should be switched on or off are just some of the questions raised during the hearing. At present, those decisions are made locally, department-by-department.
Later this year, that process will include the Minneapolis Police Department, the state’s largest, which is now running a pilot program. With a recent St. Paul City Council vote approving a similar testing phase, the state’s four largest cities will have at least some body cameras in use by 2016.
The proliferation has been accelerated by high-profile cases of alleged police misconduct in Missouri, Ohio and New Mexico, where the Department of Justice found numerous constitutional violations in a slew of officer-involved shootings that left 23 suspects dead in a four-year period.
Minnesota’s police have better education and training than that, and they are more responsible in their use of force, contends Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, chair of the civil law committee. But no officer or department is beyond reproach, and Scott sees the value in cameras that could convict — or absolve — an officer accused of misbehavior.
Still, the debate is “incredibly complicated,” Scott said after Tuesday’s hearing, and it might be too much for the Legislature to hash out a statewide policy this session.
“There are just no easy answers to this in the short term,” said Scott, who suggested that a task force should study all sides of the issue and make recommendations toward crafting a universal statute.
The committee chair’s deliberate approach was reflected in Tuesday’s hearing, which was merely an informational briefing for legislators.
But her House Republican caucus colleague, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, does not see the need to wait on the issue, and he has introduced legislation at the request of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. Cornish said cops are seeking clarity on the use of cameras and are worried about the likelihood of a private, embarrassing matter for individuals becoming fodder for the public.
“[Police] don’t want the public to see Joe or Mary Six-pack on their worst day,” said Cornish, a former police chief.
His proposal would allow police to access footage obtained on patrol, but would restrict public access to the person or people captured on camera. The bill also calls for the destruction of videos after 90 days, mirroring recent proposals for how long law enforcement agencies would be allowed to retain records captured by license plate readers (LPR).
As chair of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, Cornish has good standing to influence the debate, as does his Senate co-author, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee. Latz said the Legislature should act sooner rather than later, citing the possibility of discrepancies and controversy for local law enforcement in the interim.
“Delaying the conversation is not going to be helpful,” Latz said. “What’ll end up happening is you’ll have a patchwork of policies at the different [police] departments, and then legal battles over the data, and I don’t think that is serving anyone well.”
Despite the support of Cornish and Latz, a bill to set state policy on police cameras would have to originate in Scott’s civil law committee. Scott, for her part, said she sees “a lot of problems,” with the proposed language, and named a lack of protection against police sharing videos within the department for entertainment rather than investigative work. Scott is one of a number of prominent Minnesotans, most of them women, whose private information has been accessed inappropriately by a state employee.
The storage and handling of police footage can be costly and tedious, as lawmakers learned Tuesday. Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke told the House members that cameras had proven valuable in recent years, as when officers taped a murderer’s impromptu confession in a 2011 homicide. But Burnsville spends about $3,000 per month to store video recordings of its 56 officers, and Gieseke said it took an officer two days to complete the necessary editing and redaction of one 13-minute clip.
“I’m optimistic that, moving forward, it will be an easier process,” Gieseke said. “As it is today, it can be cumbersome.”
During the hearing, Scott borrowed a phrase from Don Gemberling, secretary of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), who referred to a “law enforcement industrial complex” where private companies push police toward increasingly invasive and expensive technology programs. The rapid pace of change is part of the reason for Scott’s hesitancy to move a comprehensive bill this year, saying it’s more important that the Legislature find the right approach rather than the most convenient. Should members agree to create a task force to review body camera policies, Scott said she would also seek a moratorium on the approval of any new programs until state law was settled.
Cornish and Latz said the increased focus on the relationship of police and the public should work in favor of the drive to pass a bill this year, and both worried that legislative inaction could lead to the abandonment of systems already in place.
Scott, for her part, said the spike in public scrutiny on police conduct only makes her less interested in moving quickly to a resolution.
“I don’t want to feel pressured into anything on this body cam business,” Scott said after the hearing. “I want to get it right because of the focus on it.”
Cornish said he had only spoken generally with Scott about issues of public safety and privacy as it relates to the deployment of drones, LPRs and other new technologies. He remained hopeful that they could find a “reasonable” compromise, but was not sure how or when that might be reached.
“It’s very possible that this whole thing could die, and never make it to the [House] floor, or to the Senate,” Cornish said. “But I have to still work with [Scott] on it.”