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Senators consider police body camera privacy issues

ST. PAUL -- The national debate about how much police body camera video is public landed in the Minnesota spotlight Thursday.

A bill a Senate committee considered would make most of the video private.

"Given the sensitivity of some of the data that is going to be on the cameras ... the best premise to start with would be that the data will be private," said the bill's author, Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park.

Executive Director Dennis Flaherty of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association agreed because law enforcement officers often see people "in bad times of their lives ... times when they would not want a camera rolling and later released for the entire world to see."

On the other hand, the American Civil Liberties Union and others said that the default position of making data private is backwards from how the state normally considers law enforcement data.

Assuming videos are public would allow the public to keep police accountable, the ACLU's Ben Fiest testified.

"At the end of the day, the accountability piece of body cams will be significantly undermined if almost everything is private," Fiest said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not vote on the body camera bill, but Latz, the panel's chairman, said it will consider the topic again later this legislative session.

Several Minnesota police departments already are using body cams or plan pilot projects, including Burnsville, Farmington, Brooklyn Park, Duluth, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Hastings.

The issue became much discussed across the country after police shootings in several communities, including Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

Body cam controversy often revolves around whether the video should be private to protect innocent people who may be on it or if it should be public to keep police more accountable.

One of the major issues Latz mentioned is cost in storing video. Estimates are that Minneapolis police alone would need to store a million videos each year. Some data would be stored for years.

Under the bill, videos not expected to be needed by law enforcement officers must be kept at least 90 days and destroyed in a year. If it appears the video might be needed, such in cases where excessive police force may be alleged, it must be kept a year and destroyed after three years.

Police chiefs and sheriffs could opt to keep videos longer.

Latz said that an exception to the provision that keeps videos private is when a subject of a video requests a copy. If one person in the video wants a copy, but others in the video do not agree, the video and audio must be made so the others are not recognizable.

"Only the subject of the data" has access to a video, the senator said.

But Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he worried that hackers could get access to videos stored on the Internet.

"With all of our good intentions, I really think this is going to happen," Newman said.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said that when there were no videos in some recent police shootings, tensions increased.

"When we do have a camera and it is available to the public, it often exonerates the police department," Limmer said.

Public information proponents agreed with the civil liberties union that the data should be considered public. Mark Anfinson of the Minnesota Newspaper Association said police already have about two dozen ways to withhold information, which cover body cam videos.

Burnsville has used body cams since 2010, Anfinson said.

"Has anyone heard of a problem?" he asked. No one responded.

Before discussing body cameras, the committee approved on a divided vote a bill to give felons the right to vote once they are released from prison.

Current law bans felons from voting until they complete probation or parole.

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, D-Minneapolis, said he brought up the bill because there is no evidence that current law leads to better public safety or gives any other benefits.

However, Champion said, allowing felons to vote would make felons feel more part of the community and set good examples for their children who would see parents voting.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.