ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators could not decide whether video from police-worn body cameras should be public, so cities across the state are asking the Dayton administration to keep most private.
Sixteen cities this week asked Administration Commissioner Matt Massman to order that the video be private until legislators can settle the issue.
"This will help guide and direct us as we plan for and implement this project in policy making, training and cost considerations," Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston said in a letter to Massman.
Brainerd is among 16 cities asking for the ruling, while nine others offered support to the request. If a ruling makes the videos private, it could extend to all Minnesota law enforcement agencies.
Executive Director Chuck Samuelson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said his group supports body cameras, but making the video private would hurt police.
"If you make it all private, people will think, in many cases correctly, you are only using this to spy on people," Samuelson said, as well as making it look like law enforcement officials have something to hide.
Maplewood, lead city in the data information request, finished the paperwork to apply to the state late Monday. Massman has up to three months to decide.
If the commissioner decides the data will be private, the attorney general would review the issue and could overturn his decision.
Cities that filed the application may consider the data private immediately, but it would revert to public if the commissioner rules against their application.
The cities' request would allow civilians in a video to request that it be made public.
Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell told Massman in a letter that without considering privacy "this technology has the potential to undermine the very nature of the relationships law enforcement as a profession is working to develop with the communities they serve."
The argument is that people would be reluctant to talk if they know they are being recorded. In other cases, police say, some video scenes may be inappropriate for public viewing.
A resolution from the Farmington City Council indicates that its police began using body cameras in 2014 and the department "seeks to expand use of body worn camera technology."
Police Chief Scott Johnson of Grand Rapids wrote: "Today, any citizen can walk into their local police department and demand this data. With few exemptions law enforcement must release it."
Like other police officers, Johnson said that the availability of the video provides virtual access into people's homes.
"This could be used to intimidate them or undermine their safety," Johnson added.
Worthington Chief Troy Appel urged Massman to approve the temporary private data classification, saying it would "be a great opportunity to demonstrate how effective local law enforcement truly is."
Appel said that his department has been waiting to buy body cams until the Legislature decides what to do with the video. But the city might go ahead and buy cameras if Massman rules in the cities' favor.
Samuelson said the ACLU is conflicted with body cameras, but back their use because they could help of police officers in a time when their public support is waning.
"We have come to the conclusion right now that body cameras are the best way to create the transparency that we believe police need," he said.
Samuelson said that state law already restricts what can be made public. For instance, data in a criminal case under investigation is private. However, data, including video, can be made public when a case wraps up.
"The majority of stuff the camera captures has to be public" eventually, Samuelson said.
Cities that are part of the application to declare most police body camera videos private are Aitkin, Baxter, Big Lake, Brainerd, Brooklyn Park, Burnsville, Farmington, Grand Rapids, Jordan, Maplewood, Montevideo, Onamia, Richfield, Rochester, St. Anthony and Starbuck.
Cities that offered support for the application are Bloomington, Duluth, Eden Prairie, Madelia, Maple Grove, Mounds View, Oak Park Heights, Plymouth and Worthington.
In North Dakota, state legislators passed a law in April that makes body-worn camera images taken in people’s homes and certain other places private. The law, which was first proposed by West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan, exempts footage taken in a “private place” from open records law. The law does not define “private place,” but the bill’s sponsor has said the courts have laid out where a person has an “expectation of privacy,” for example, in their homes.
Body-worn camera footage is subject to pre-existing exceptions in North Dakota open records law, including provisions that preclude evidence in ongoing criminal investigations from being released and that maintain the anonymity of undercover officers, confidential informants and victims of domestic violence or sex crimes.
Grand Forks Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said he believes the current laws restricting the release of certain body-worn camera images in North Dakota are “pretty reasonable.”
“I think we’re at a pretty solid starting place now,” said Zimmel, saying it is important the public and police continually re-evaluate the effectiveness of open records laws relating to body-worn cameras.
Grand Forks Police Department, which outfitted its officers with body-worn cameras late last year, instructs its officers to turn off their cameras to respect other’s privacy by, for example, avoiding filming nudity.
Departmental policy also allows officers to switch off their cameras to avoid recording sexual assault victims, police informants, undercover officers and "innocent bystanders" unless their recorded statement would prove important as evidence.