- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - As more Minnesota police departments use body cameras, lawmakers are focusing on whether the footage should be kept private or the public should be able to watch the videos to ensure officers are doing their jobs properly.

A Senate panel weighed in on the debate Thursday, discussing a law enforcement-backed bill that leans more toward privacy and would generally allow only police and the citizens who appear in the footage to access the videos.

Nationally there’s been a push in the wake of the unrest over a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, to equip officers with body cameras. Officers can wear the small devices on their vests or eyeglasses.

Law enforcement agencies in some communities in Minnesota, including Burnsville and Duluth, already are using the cameras. Police in Minneapolis have rolled out a pilot project that could expand, and St. Paul officers have a test run in the works.

And although lawmakers have several issues to wade through to pass a law, including how long the footage should be kept and how much it costs cities to store it, setting ground rules for who can access recordings is the main sticking point pitting open government advocates against police officers.

Sen. Ron Latz, a St. Louis Park Democrat who is the body camera bill’s author, said even the most delicate balance of “some irreconcilable positions” between transparency and privacy won’t please both sides. It’s unclear when lawmakers will start taking votes.

“There isn’t going to be anyone at the end of the day here that is going to feel that whatever we do is entirely satisfactory,” Latz said.

His bill leans toward keeping the videos under wraps, limiting access to those who appear in the footage.

Open government advocates cried foul, saying that restriction effectively neuters body cameras’ primary purpose of keeping an eye on law enforcement for potential abuses. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and other organizations are pushing to make the footage more accessible to the public.

“We believe that use of body cameras would be essentially used against the public as another form of surveillance … and that we would lose the big accountability issue here,” Ben Feist of the Minnesota ACLU said.

Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said public access to body camera footage “really serves no public purpose.”

Flaherty and other law enforcement representatives expressed concern about what wide public access would mean - both for exposing citizens’ private lives and, in their minds, spurring more complaints against officers.

Law enforcement representatives argued that the timing of how long police departments hold onto recordings is key to making sure agencies have evidence to either prove or disprove an allegation made against an officer. And they asked for measures to protect officers from being punished if footage of an incident in question had already been destroyed.

“Most of these allegations, when properly and fully investigated, are found to be unfounded,” Flaherty said. “Oftentimes they’re made in the heat of the moment. Or someone is angry at a cop and wants to get even.”

Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, argued that broader public access would actually play to police’s favor by allowing them to more quickly release footage that exonerates them. But for everyday Minnesota residents, Anfinson said access to the videos is critical.

“There is no government agency or function of any kind that has more power over regular citizens than law enforcement agencies,” he said.


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