St. Paul, Minn. – A bill sponsored by two former cops Rep. Tony Cornish and Rep. Brian Johnson, and one current police officer, Rep. Dan Schoen, would make any video recorded on police officer’s body cams private.
Police departments would be required to destroy any data not involved in an active criminal investigation after 90 days under the bill. It would also require that the video only be accessible by law enforcement or the individuals in the video.
Minnesota state data law now presumes footage captured on body cam as being open to the public. In practice, however, this is often not the case.
Currently in many jurisdictions with dash or body cams without any written policy, law enforcement simply claims that the footage doesn’t exist. They often claim that they can’t find it or that the cam was off when requested by citizens, leaving no further recourse for citizens attempting to retrieve potentially valuable footage.
Proponents of the bill claim that this is a privacy issue.
“You could have a half naked housewife that’s been beat up with a bloody face, half naked kids running around,” Cornish said, according to Minnesota Public Radio. “You could have a gun collection. That information needs to remain private.”
Schoen argues the bill is intended to start a discussion, making the key concern to maintain citizen privacy. The cameras are live when officers enter homes, hospitals and other private places when people are most vulnerable, he said.
Opponents of the bill say that making that data secret undermines holding police accountable, which is the very reason there has been a public outcry for police to be outfitted with cams in the first place.
— NYCLU (@NYCLU) January 29, 2015
American Civil Liberties Union of Minneapolis director Ben Feist told the Duluth News Tribune.
“If you make it too private, the whole idea that we are able to use the body camera to watch police really falls by the wayside.”
Feist did say he is open to keeping footage of a private residence or a police informant private.
Minnesota Newspaper Association lobbyist Mark Anfinson, meanwhile, said all footage should be available to the public, even if that means figuring out how to safeguard private information, according to RT.
“The more you talk about this and think through the ramifications of what sort of video may actually be acquired, it does get complex,” Anfinson said. “But you know what? You can’t let complexity paralyze you.”
With the technology coming into use so recently, there is an open debate to be had regarding privacy rights, such as whether a cop can film while in a person’s home. Most courts have yet to weigh in on this subject.
While it seems a no-brainer that a person’s home would be private, the Washington state Supreme Court has held that interactions with on-duty police are presumed to be public. For this reason officers are under no obligation to turn off the cameras if people object to being recorded – even if the event is being recorded in someone’s home, according to the Associated Press (AP).
While those decisions can potentially be left to local jurisdictions and cities, as they could adopt laws requiring officers to turn off the cameras when they enter someone’s home, it would make more sense to include a directive within the bill to safeguard citizen privacy if that were the actual impetus for this legislation.
If this bill is truly about protecting citizen’s privacy, wouldn’t it make more sense to create a uniform policy that truly protects individual privacy? Could the bill not mandate that officers turn off their cameras when they enter someone’s home?
One factor that this legislation fails to take into account is that the courts have held that there is no expectation of privacy in public spaces.
When in public spaces where you are lawfully present, there exists a right to photograph anything that is in plain view. Why should the public not have access to everything recorded by an officer in the carrying out his official duties in public spaces?
Including a true safeguard for privacy in the bill, such as mandating police turn off cams when entering a private residence, allows for the concerns of the those concerned about privacy to be addressed while still allowing for full public accountability of officers by making the information publicly accessible.
Instead, this legislation takes what could be a useful tool for accountability and public oversight of the government and stifles it. The bill attempts to turn body cameras into another simple mechanism used to bolster the prosecution while limiting the public’s access to vital data.
The fact that three current or former cops are the driving force behind this legislation should bring into question whether these legislators are being genuine about this bill’s intention of safeguarding the public’s privacy.
It seems likely that rather than being good Samaritans, looking out for their constituents privacy interests, Cornish, Johnson, and Schoen are quite simply STILL toeing the thin blue line for their brothers in blue.
We recommend continuing filming police to be assured of having an accurate and available record of any encounter with them.
Jay Syrmopoulos is an investigative journalist, freethinker, researcher, and ardent opponent of authoritarianism. He is currently a graduate student at University of Denver pursuing a masters in Global Affairs. Jay’s work has previously been published on BenSwann.com and WeAreChange.org. You can follow him on Twitter @sirmetropolis, on Facebook at Sir Metropolis and now on tsu.