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Private data 'best balance' for body cams

The Rochester Police Department is pushing to make police body camera footage private, and a local lawmaker is vowing to take up the fight in the next legislative session.

In the absence of specific state laws governing the use and public availability of police body cameras and captured data, 16 cities have petitioned the state of Minnesota for a temporary ruling. The Rochester Police Department joined the request, which asks the state's commissioner of administration to temporarily classify police body camera footage as "private" data.

If accepted by the commissioner, the temporary classification would give clarity to police body camera programs around the state until lawmakers have a chance to craft specific legislation. Byron Republican Rep. Duane Quam has introduced a bill seeking to make body camera footage taken in people's homes private.

More transparency?

Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson signed the department's letter of support to temporarily classify body camera data as "private." In Peterson's line of reasoning, classifying data as private would lead to more accountability and more transparency from police officers than a "public" data classification.


If body camera data were private, it would still be available upon request to any person who appears in the video, according to the petition submitted to state administration.

A law enforcement agency would withhold access to body camera video that is public in situations where the video contains content "clearly offensive to common sensibilities," the petition states. That content would include nudity, dead bodies, domestic disputes, the insides of private residences and responses to medical or mental health crises.

Peterson said the data classification is the best outcome available to balance the public's privacy interests and desire for police transparency. If data were not made private, he said, body camera policies might instruct officers not to record sensitive situations by turning off the cameras, to keep private situations from being available to data requests.

"I think the important distinction to be made there is the only way that we currently have to protect that privacy interest is simply to turn the camera off and never have that data to begin with," Peterson explained.

"Obviously, from the standpoint of transparency, creating the data and making it accessible (only) to the subject of that data goes a lot further toward transparency than simply not utilizing the camera or turning the camera off."

"In order to balance those interests – the transparency and the privacy issues – I think that's the best balance we can achieve," Peterson said.

Privacy rights vs. public accountability

Quam is seeking to pass a bill to classify body camera footage taken in a place where there is "a reasonable expectation of privacy" as nonpublic, such as someone's home. His legislation allows the data to become public if a judge orders it.


The Byron Republican wants to see the data made nonpublic to ensure that citizens are not afraid to call law enforcement out of fear body camera footage could become public.

"If it's classified as nonpublic, it could be protected from some tabloid-type person mining through hours of police footage to find something salacious to throw on the internet or TV," Quam said.

He is also concerned about police officers being responsible for having to turn on and off their body cameras.

"Do we really want an officer delayed in reacting by turning on or off their body camera? I think not," he said.

But some say Quam's bill goes too far. Ben Feist, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said making nearly all body camera footage nonpublic would hurt efforts to restore the public's trust in police officers.

"With so much secrecy there, we lose almost all of the accountability and transparency body cameras were supposed to bring," he said.

Feist cites as an example efforts to determine whether an officer might have a history of engaging in racial profiling.

"If they want to figure out does an officer have a history of racial profiling or some type of misbehavior, the only way that the public can be able to learn about that is if there is access to a series of this officer's conduct," he said.


The ACLU wants body camera footage to be presumed to be public data, but with key exceptions. The group argues that videos should be flagged and kept longer if they involve the use of force, lead to an arrest or a member of the public raises concerns about the encounter captured on the camera. The organization would support making private body camera footage that has not been flagged that is taken in a private residence, involves police informants or includes victims giving statements to police.

The DFL-led Minnesota Senate passed a bill earlier in May that would have made most body camera footage private. Exceptions would be if the video captures the use of focus causing bodily harm, is taken in a public place or if the subject of the video requests it. The legislation failed the advance in the Republican-controlled House.

Turning cameras on and off

The Rochester Police Policy Oversight Commission has labored over a policy for body cameras that would dictate when officers would be expected to turn cameras on and when to shut them off.

Asking officers to make that decision would put them in "a terrible position," Peterson said.

"I think we can do that much better through public policy, through legislation, than by asking the officers to make that decision each and every time they respond to a call," he said.

The ACLU wants lawmakers to establish a statewide policy for when body cameras should be rolling.

Feist added, "We think that if officers just have discretion to say, 'This is something I want to get on video, but maybe what comes next is something I don't want to get on video,' then we think body cameras could do more harm than good."

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