Police: We’ll Wear Body Cameras, But No One’s Allowed to See the Footage

Are body cameras reasonable for police? I don’t like the idea of a surveillance state, but I can’t deny the importance of recording police encounters. Not every encounter we’ll have with police will be a dangerous one, but we definitely wouldn’t want to be in a position where we were injured by a cop or worse, without having recorded the incident. We’d have to appeal to the police report which would most likely condemn us, the dashcam video, or the cops’ body cameras, if they were even wearing them.

It’s no surprise that police body cameras have reduced complaints by civilians and incidents of excessive force within the departments that employ them. In those departments, police know that everything they do is recorded, which means that they’re going to be a little more careful with what they say and do. And it means that they’ll think twice before they shoot someone.

Of course, many police departments object to body cameras for one reason or another. Probably the most laughable reason is that police body cameras “violate citizen privacy.”

In Minnesota, police are pushing against the use of body cameras by agreeing to use them, but not letting anyone else see the footage recorded without first jumping through some bureaucratic hoops. Here’s Tech Dirt:

The state wants its law enforcement officers to wear cameras but some legislators don’t feel the public should have access to the footage. A bill supported by the state’s law enforcement aims to keep as many recordings out of the public’s hands as possible. 

The bill states:

[A]udio and video data captured by a portable video recording system that is not part of an active or inactive criminal investigation must be destroyed within 90 days of the date the data were captured, unless the data subject, or any peace officer identifiable by the data, submits a written request to the law enforcement agency to retain the data for possible use in a future proceeding related to the circumstances under which the data were originally collected. Any law enforcement agency that receives a request to retain data shall retain it for a reasonable time, based upon the likelihood of its future use and the agency’s policies for retention. Peace officers who are identifiable by portable video recording system data shall have unrestricted access to the data while it is retained and must be permitted to make copies.

It seems reasonable… until you realize what it’s allowing law enforcement agencies to do. Anything retained by these agencies will only be accessible to civilians in the recording, and then only by request. Alleged misconduct that is cleared by law enforcement oversight will move affected recordings into the “destroy” pile, which means agencies can start deleting potentially damning footage almost immediately, provided there are no current requests for the recordings.

The bill also exempts recordings from state public records laws by deeming nearly all recordings “nonpublic” by default.

Except for data classified as active criminal investigative data pursuant to subdivision 7, portable video recording system data is private data on individuals or nonpublic data at all times. Notwithstanding subdivision 7, portable video recording system data that are part of an inactive investigation remain classified as provided in this subdivision.

I would think that police departments would want their officers to wear body cameras to protect them or to provide evidence in case of civilian lawsuits. And aren’t the police usually the ones complaining about how the footage captured by a civilian’s cell phone doesn’t show what happened before the beatings began? It just shows the beatings. Well, that’s a legitimate argument, but usually, there is enough footage to show context.

But it seems if that’s part of their concern, that they’d want all their officers armed with cameras so that they could prove to the public that they were truly threatened by a civilian, and that the civilian deserved what he got from the officer. Instead, they keep thinking up excuses and exceptions and ways around using the body cameras in a way that protects them and civilians. Perhaps they’ve got something to hide.