Are police body cameras tools for transparency, or an invasion of privacy?

Incident in Burnsville Police Dept. lobby Courtesy Burnsville Police Department

The City of St. Paul hosted a community meeting on Wednesday to discuss police body cameras, which the city plans to fully implement in 2017 after a pilot program in 2016. Currently, over 35 Minnesota police departments use body cameras, but not without privacy concerns. For today’s question, MPR reached out to local organizations working on the issue.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union amended a previous policy recommendation for the use of this technology. Benjamin Feist, the legislative director of the ACLU of Minnesota, writes to MPR,

“Whether police body cameras are tools for transparency or an invasion of privacy depends largely on the policies enacted to address how police use the cameras and who will ultimately have access to the videos.

With good policies in place, recording of police-civilian encounters can promote police accountability, deter misconduct, and provide objective evidence to help resolve complaints against police without significantly infringing on privacy. At the same time, widespread use of body cameras could do more harm than good if they are primarily used as a police surveillance tool.

Body cameras will only enhance transparency if there are appropriate policies to ensure that police do not have discretion to turn the cameras on and off as they please. This technology will not improve accountability if cameras become a tool for capturing only video the police want the public to see.

Body cameras do present unique privacy concerns. Police officers often enter individuals’ homes and encounter bystanders, suspects, and victims in a wide variety of sometimes stressful and extreme situations. However, these concerns can be addressed without creating a presumption against public access. We do not support shielding large classes of body camera footage from disclosure under the pretext of protecting privacy. Allowing police to release footage when it is in their interest, but not allowing public access to those videos showing officers engaging in inappropriate and/or unlawful conduct has the potential to further erode the public trust in our peace officers.”

Matt Ehling, chair of the legislative issues committee of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, writes,

“The answer to the question is that police body cameras could do both things, depending on how they are regulated and used.

Police have used cameras to document their work for decades. Minnesota law allows police to keep much of this “investigative” data from public release until after an investigation is closed. At that point, the data (including body cam video or other images) becomes “public,” with certain exceptions. These include exceptions for crime victims, juveniles witnesses, undercover officers, and over a dozen other categories that can be withheld from public release. The rest is available for public examination. This arrangement has long provided government accountability, while protecting certain sensitive data.

However, since increased use of body cameras will result in more police encounters in private places (including homes) being recorded, we believe that Minnesota law should clearly allow people to ask police to turn cameras off in private places. If police record video in a private home without consent, a violation of privacy has already occurred, whether or not the video is publicly released. Controlling how police can gather video in private places is the surest way to avoid privacy violations with body cameras.”

Today’s Question: Are police body cameras tools for transparency, or an invasion of privacy?