Privacy concerns, questions surround police body cameras in Minnesota

Police body cameras have been talked about a lot in the last three week -- city leaders in Chicago are now calling for all officers to have them. In Minneapolis, police are testing them, but none were recording when officers shot and killed Jamar Clark.

Now, a special commission at the legislature is tackling the issue. But there are many practical questions like how do you store that much data? And who pays for it? There are also very serious constitutional privacy issues.

In Burnsville, body cameras captured foot chases, fires, and even a man entering the police station lobby with a box cutter. The experience for Burnsville police has been mostly positive, even if their chief warns that body cameras are no panacea.

“It captures a portion of what we deal with, it doesn’t capture the entire event,” Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke said. “But at least by capturing that small portion it paints a better picture of the broader situation with respect to what the officer is in.”    

But at the state legislature, lawmakers have very real concerns about protecting privacy.

“Right now we don’t have laws on how to classify this data,” Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), said.

A senate bill passed last year that never became law clearly established that body camera video is private data unless the recording occurred in a public place -- and that could have vast implications for incidents such as the Jamar Clark shooting, if police were wearing cameras that were recording.

“Under the current Senate bill, if it happened outdoors, which it did at some point, the public would get access. But in a private residence that would largely be locked down from public view,” Ben Feist, American Civil Liberties Union, said.

The ACLU wants privacy protections, but that’s at odds with community members.

“We would like to have those videos ASAP if that means declassifying them in another way because that would help everybody,” Dianne Binns, St. Paul Civilian Police Board, said.

Police in Seattle have created a YouTube channel of nothing but body camera videos, nearly all of them blurred to protect people’s privacy.  But in Burnsville, it’s about accountability and making sure that officers are on an equal playing field with the camera toting public.

“I know from our department talking to officers as recently as last night that a lot of them don’t want to go out on the street without a camera,” Chief Gieseke said. “They want to have the ability to protect themselves and show what happens.”

The position of the state legislature is still very much evolving on this issue. The senate has taken a firm stance, but the house is not quite there yet.  Even the ACLU has evolved -- it has always come down on the side of privacy, but now it also recognizes that transparency and accountability may outweigh some of the privacy fears that they once had.