- Associated Press - Thursday, July 9, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Some Minnesota police chiefs plan to ask a state agency for temporary restrictions on access to police body camera footage after failing to convince Minnesota lawmakers to limit public availability.

The chiefs, led by Maplewood’s Paul Schnell, intend to approach Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration next month for a ruling that would make much of the footage off-limits to a general public that can now obtain it with few exceptions. Schnell goes before his city council Monday to outline the plan, which seeks to indefinitely classify the data until the Legislature sets permanent regulations on whom is entitled to body-camera footage and under what circumstances.

“We’re in a little bit of an awkward and precarious spot in law enforcement: More and more people are calling for use of body cameras and their potential benefits,” Schnell told The Associated Press on Thursday. On the flip side, Schnell contends wide access to data amounts to “window peeping into events that may be highly personal, emotionally traumatizing and not intended for the eyes and ears of others” - especially when their interactions with police are in private dwellings.

Current Minnesota law says nothing specific about police body cameras, meaning most of the information they collect is presumed public. The scope of the new police request won’t be finalized until Maplewood consults with other police departments and allied groups.

Government transparency advocates are on guard, warning sweeping restrictions would weaken the accountability mission of the cameras.

“Cops want to get all of these brand new toys and do not want to have the disclosure,” said Rich Neumeister, a government records watchdog who has pursued footage from a few of the roughly 30 Minnesota police agencies with broad or experimental body-camera programs. “Don’t people have a right to know what their law enforcement is doing?”

Matt Ehling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information said an indefinite lockdown of data would reduce the incentive for legislators to develop a body-camera law. He said the classification order could be unnecessary because existing laws would give police authority to withhold or redact footage involving juveniles, sexual assault victims and other sensitive investigations.

Dayton’s administration rejected a similar request last winter, arguing it lacked the power to classify the data in the way police departments sought and that the Legislature was a better venue for such a debate. But state lawmakers deadlocked over the issue this spring and won’t reconvene until March of 2016.

But the Democratic governor has declined to take a firm body-camera stance, including in April when the AP asked how a new classification request would go over. He said some parameters were needed to prevent “a dragnet fishing expedition” but also said the recordings have value in the public domain.

“It’s one of these really angels-and-devils-in-the-details questions where on the one hand you want cameras to record what’s going on and on the other you need to protect the privacy of the victims and the subjects,” Dayton said. “To work that out is a balance.”

Schnell said the request will be more narrowly tailored than the one Dayton’s administration rejected last year. A bill that passed the Senate but went nowhere in the House would have limited footage release to subjects captured in the videos or in cases where an officer uses a weapon or force and causes a substantial injury.

Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, whose department has 120 cameras in use and plans to sign onto Maplewood’s proposal, embraces that approach.

“Anybody involved should be able to access the videos,” Ramsay said. “It’s whether or not your neighbor or your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend should be able to see it.”

He and other police chiefs worry about a crush of information requests as the cameras become more common. Ramsay said he has received requests from reporters and from lawyers working on automobile accident cases where police responded.

Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, said she’s concerned domestic abuse victims would think twice about alerting authorities if videos of the response could easily get out.

“Anybody can take that footage and put it on social media,” she said, drawing a contrast between standard police reports. “It’s a really different thing to look at printed word and video footage.”

Schnell said it’s impractical to make filming conditional on consent or to have officers disable the cameras when entering a home.

“If something happens and something goes bad and the body cameras were not on, there would be questions about and suspicions about whether that was intentional or not,” he said.

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