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Police body camera amendment stirs debate in Senate

Rep. Peggy Scott, chair of the House Civil Law and Data Privacy Committee, says body camera legislation is effectively off the table in the lower chamber this year. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

Rep. Peggy Scott, chair of the House Civil Law and Data Privacy Committee, says body camera legislation is effectively off the table in the lower chamber this year. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

Sometime Thursday afternoon, Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, took a phone call from a police chief who works in his district. The chief told Thompson he understood that the bill regulating police body cameras was on the floor later that day, and he hoped the Republican senator would support it.

The police chief was confused, Thompson told him. The Senate was actually scheduled to take up the bill on license plate reader (LPR) technology, and the body camera law wasn’t coming up for a vote. Thompson’s thinking was correct, at least at that time. Hours later, the statement was wrong, and it was Thompson who was confused.

Indeed, many senators professed their alarm during a floor session that day, as Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, moved to amend his LPR bill to incorporate another, previously separate piece of legislation dealing with body cameras. In so doing, Latz wedded the two major public safety and data privacy measures of the 2015 session into one bill. To some, including a key House Republican, the move might place both proposals in jeopardy this year.

Latz said he had attempted to give full warning ahead of time to stakeholders and interested senators via email, and explained that he was only being responsive to law enforcement leaders, who sought guidance on data-collection systems already in use in many localities.

“The fact is, they are here, and will continue to grow in use whether we take action or not,” Latz said.

Under the LPR piece of the bill, police forces could hold results of the automated readers — either placed on squad cars or posted as stand-alone devices in high-traffic areas — for up to 90 days, unless the material was part of an ongoing investigation.

The body camera amendment, modeled on a bill Latz had carried earlier this session, allows for the preservation of video recordings for “at least 90 days,” though the tape must be destroyed within a year. The amendment would leave the retention window up to local police forces to design. Preserving the many hours of video captured by cops on the beat has proven expensive, so far, as most police departments hire outside data firms to process and store the volume of data files.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he had requested a “local impact” fiscal note earlier this session, in trying to sort out how much the implementation might cost individual police units, but had yet to receive a response from Senate analysts.

He was one of several Republicans who raised concern about the amendment, though others criticized the tactic rather than the underlying thought. Several said the two bills both had merit, but should travel separately and receive their own debates. Senate Minority Leader David Hann urged members to vote down the body camera provision, saying its inclusion could lead to the collapse of a conference committee between the Senate and House, where an LPR bill has advanced, but a body camera bill stalled entirely.

Latz argued it was appropriate to tie the two proposals into one bill, as both have to do with public safety and private data. He added that advocates, including police representatives and domestic violence groups, were concerned that without a state law in place, body camera footage could become public and wind up on YouTube.

“This is the last train out of the station for this bill,” Latz said.

The amendment passed, though just barely, 34 votes to 25, with the remaining members absent because of ongoing conference committee work. A move from Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, to lay the bill on the table was unsuccessful, but another Petersen motion proved effective. Petersen, a data-privacy hawk, moved that the bill include language prohibiting local police departments from obtaining “a portable recording device beyond video or audio” without an affirmative vote from the corresponding unit of local government, and the amendment was adopted on a voice vote.

The bill itself was significantly more popular than Latz’s surprise amendment, and passed 41-19. Three Democrats had voted against his body camera amendment, but the whole of the opposition to the bill came from the Republican caucus.

It will receive a good deal more opposition in the House, according to Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who was watching the Senate debate transpire and said the body camera law was effectively off the table in the lower chamber this year.

Even if the Senate had attached the body camera provision as a starting point to be sorted out in a conference committee, Scott said the topic was too complex to be debated and passed in the few days left in the session.

“In my opinion, it’s a non-starter,” she said. “If it comes back over here, I’m guessing we would likely strip that out. This is something both bodies need to vet.”

Scott, chair of the House Civil Law and Data Privacy Committee, said she had spoken with Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, chief author of the House’s LPR bill, earlier that day, and he had not indicated he planned to do anything like what Latz had achieved on the Senate floor. She reiterated her preference that the newly formed legislative commission on data privacy consider the body camera proposal during the interim before the 2016 session.

Latz, meanwhile, has so far given little weight to that body’s recommendations: Though it recommended law enforcement have a “zero retention” policy for LPR data, he opted for the 90-day window in his bill, saying the commission’s vote was not an “official” action.

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