If lawmakers are looking for a single issue to occupy the entirety of their short 2016 regular session, they need look no further than the question of how to revise state data-practices law on police body cameras.
As if to demonstrate that point, the Legislative Commission on Data Practices spent more than three hours debating the issue Tuesday, with the discussion spinning in as many directions as there were testifiers and commission members.
Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover even used the Q-word — “quagmire” — in describing the range of practices, laws and policies in states and police departments across the country.
Scott, who chairs the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, said she is involved in drafting a bill on body cam data. She indicated she favors requiring that police officers ask for consent from people who might appear in a video before operating body cams in places where citizens might reasonably expect privacy.
Meanwhile on the Senate side, body cam legislation that passed earlier this year (SF498, sponsored by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee) will likely be revived in 2016.
But Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, the minority lead on Scott’s data-practices committee, warned his colleagues on the commission that the House was unlikely to simply approve Latz’s bill.
In an interview after the commission meeting, Lesch said he thought legislators might instead pursue a framework bill that leaves some policy details to be filled in later — an approach he said he wasn’t thrilled about.
Regulation of license plate readers (LPRs) that became law last session isn’t a model for new body cam law, in Lesch’s opinion. LPR data is simpler, more straightforward digitized information, he said, compared to body cam video, the regulation of which he compared to “three-dimensional chess.”
That was borne out in the kaleidoscope of opinion and proposals expressed at the hearing. Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, the panel’s chair, appeared to welcome the wide-ranging testimony and argument.
Law enforcement representatives told the commission they see a host of benefits to body cams and look forward to legislation to guide their use.
Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke said that in 2010 his department was first in the state (and one of the first in the nation) to embark on a body cam program, which has now grown to include his full force. Body cams enhance police officers’ professionalism, he said, and the videos sometimes shorten the time required for investigations from weeks to minutes.
The cameras have dropped in price, Gieseke said, from about $1,200 to $300 today. But data storage is expensive, as is the labor required to redact body cam videos — by blurring faces of minors or other protected persons, for instance — to respond to data requests.
About 40 police departments in Minnesota use body cams, but more than 80 percent of police chiefs in the state expect to have them within five years, according to a survey cited by Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell. But nearly a fifth are loath to use them without greater guidance in state law.
Typical factors restricting classification of body cam videos currently include their use in an active investigation or their content falling afoul of common sensibilities.
A key question is when and whether body cam videos are considered public or nonpublic data. Currently, the state’s data practices law governs police body cam data, but most testifiers and commissioners seemed to consider that inadequate to guarantee citizens privacy on the one hand and government transparency and accountability on the other.
One potential criteria for classifying body cam data as public or nonpublic is whether the video was shot inside or outside. Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, expressed doubt that any police body cam video produced inside a home would pass Fourth Amendment muster.
The demands of Black Lives Matter demonstrators for the release of videos relating to the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis last month were invoked several times at the hearing as a demonstration of the public interest in accessing police body cam data.
Many at the hearing said their views had evolved upon their further reflection on the issues, after taking in new information or in view of changes in technology. But perhaps the most surprising tale of evolution came from testifier Mark Anfinson, representing the Minnesota Newspaper Association. He said his initial view was that most police body cam data should be public. But because of anticipated problems with data storage and retrieval, as well as review and redaction, he now believes law presuming body cam videos are public simply wouldn’t work.
“This is going to lock up,” Anfinson said. He advocated creating a new section within the state data-practices law for body cam data, rather than shoehorning it into the existing law enforcement section.
The commission may make a recommendation to the Legislature before the start of the regular session in March.
The member roster for the relatively new commission continues to evolve. Sen. Scott J. Newman, R-Hutchinson, replaced Branden Petersen, the Republican senator who resigned in October, on the commission. Kent said the commission is also authorized to have four former legislators as non-voting members, with former Sen. Mary Jo McGuire and former Rep. Nora Slawik having expressed interest. Lesch asked about former Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, past chair of the commission, and Kent said Holberg could indeed rejoin as a former legislator.