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N.D. lawmakers introduce body camera bill aimed at protecting privacy of those interacting with police

BISMARCK, N.D. -- As police body cameras see increased use nationwide and in North Dakota -- police in Devils Lake and Grand Forks have adopted the technology -- some North Dakota lawmakers have introduced a bill aimed at protecting the privacy o...

BISMARCK, N.D. - As police body cameras see increased use nationwide and in North Dakota - police in Devils Lake and Grand Forks have adopted the technology - some North Dakota lawmakers have introduced a bill aimed at protecting the privacy of those interacting with police.

Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, introduced House Bill 1264 would exempt images from those body cameras from open records requirements. The bill was formally read Tuesday then referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill language is brief, stating simply that "an image taken by a law enforcement officer with a body camera or similar device and which is taken in a private place is an exempt record."

House Rep. Gary Paur, R-Gilby, is a sponsor of the bill, which he said is intended to "avoid embarrassment for some people that are caught in awkward situations."

Paur said the language of the bill may require tweaking.

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"The only concern I had with the bill is, what do you consider private," he said.

Paur said it would make more sense for body camera footage depicting a person in a compromising state inside his or her own home makes sense for exemption, while footage depicting a mall or other private property that sees public traffic makes less sense.

Attorney Jack McDonald, general counsel for the North Dakota Newspaper Association and North Dakota Broadcasters Association and lobbyist on both entities' behalf, reviewed the bill's language prior to its filing.

"At this stage, we won't really oppose that provision," said McDonald, adding he would watch the bill's progress and address any issues as they arise. "A lot of legislation, you just have to see what develops."

Body cameras are seeing increased use across the nation, in part, as a response to public outcry about police use of force. In December, President Barack Obama announced his intent to provide $75 million in grant funding to police departments across the country to help purchase 50,000 body cameras.

Area law enforcement officials said there are many questions that will need to be answered before they will feel comfortable adopting body cameras for their officers.

Mandan Police Chief Dennis Bullinger said his department had received some sample cameras from vendors and, for the past month and a half, officers -- one at a time -- have worn those cameras while out on calls.

"We're just getting started with that," said Bullinger, adding that his department would evaluate how the cameras functioned before making a decision about whether to begin using cameras on a larger scale.

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Bullinger said that, while body cameras offer positives, such as discouraging bad police conduct and exonerating wrongly accused police officers, they also present a potential staffing issue.

Body camera footage would have to be stored and saved. Somebody would have to analyze the footage. Even if HB 1264 passes, not all footage would be exempt. A records request might include body camera footage of both public and private areas, such as an officer walking on a public street and into a private residence.

"That means we have to crop part of the recording," Bullinger said.

Such demands could be a problem or headache for law enforcement agencies, he said.

Bismarck Deputy Police Chief Dave Draovitch said, while Bismarck police will have to address the body camera issue at some point, the department had no current plans to do so.

"We're of the opinion a lot more study needs to be done," he said.

The Bismarck Tribune is in a media partnership with Forum News Service.

Related Topics: POLICE
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