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Police body camera debate may drag out past 2016

ST. PAUL — More than a year into the debate over how to regulate law enforcement's use of body cameras, a wide divide between House Republicans threatens to leave Minnesota without guidelines even as the state's largest police department deploys the technology this year.

House leadership pulled a pair of bills from hearings on Wednesday, the same day a prosecutor announced he would not file charges against two officers involved in the fatal shooting of a black man in November. Neither officer was wearing a body camera, and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman noted the footage from witnesses and an ambulance was largely inconclusive.

Dozens of departments across Minnesota are already using the portable recording devices, but the Legislature has struggled to craft a law that balances providing a useful surveillance tool and offering more transparency to the public.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin confirmed Wednesday that the bills slated for a hearing Thursday were tabled, conceding that top Republican lawmakers are finding themselves unable to agree on what footage the public can access and when officers can film.

"Right now, I would say we're at a stalemate," said Rep. Peggy Scott, one of the committee chairs in the thick of the debate. "There are no easy answers on these issues because there are so many moving parts."


Minnesota's Democratic-controlled Senate has already weighed in, passing a bill restricting access largely to the subjects captured in the videos but with exceptions for incidents in public where an officer uses a weapon or force and causes a substantial injury. Open government advocates, such as Minnesota's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, have pushed for broader access.

A major hang-up in the House is disagreement over Scott's insistence that officers obtain permission before turning on their cameras inside Minnesota residents' homes. Without that measure, the Andover Republican said, body cameras could unfairly launch possible victims into the public eye and needlessly record private matters.

"Our homes are our last vestige of privacy," said Scott, who chairs the House Civil Law committee.

Fellow Republican Rep. Tony Cornish, who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee, and other lawmakers say it would be burdensome for officers and could defeat the purpose of the technology.

The prolonged debate comes at a time of intense pressure to boost police transparency after the shooting of 24-year-old Jamar Clark last year in Minneapolis. The city's department plans to start broadly deploying the technology later this spring, with all 600 or so officers equipped by the fall.

With no guidance from the state, the city has crafted its own set of policies to govern body camera usage. A department spokesman did not return a request for comment.

The state's law enforcement organizations are pressing legislators to act this year, saying there needs to be restrictions on what footage can be turned over to the public. More than a dozen police departments that currently use body cameras failed to temporarily block public access to videos last year.

"At minimum, that issue has to be resolved: Who is going to have access to the video from these cameras?" said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.


Scott suggested the remaining issues may need to be worked out by a task force after the Legislature adjourns in late May.

Cornish isn't ready to declare defeat, saying Wednesday: "Nothing is dead until the end of session. We're still working on a solution."

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