Monday, November 30, 2015

The promise of body cameras?

There is a history of a dual standard of law enforcement using abrasive/abusive police practices in our country and communities.  There has been report after report detailing the long history of police prejudice and bad behavior.  Social research in the field has substantiated this behavior for decades.  So what are law makers doing about it?

Out of the blue has come an idea which is advancing across the country:  body cameras.

The idea is being pushed by law enforcement as a concept to bring accountability.  But they also want to use it primarily as an investigative tool.

Many of the proponents echo what Mayor Hodges has stated in her public comments.  Hodges has said: "I am proud to support body cameras for all officers: they are an essential tool for holding officers accountable for their behavior, making corrections when necessary, and building community trust, for police officers have the potential to increase public trust in law enforcement, reduce the risk that citizens will not be victims of excessive force and protect officers from unfounded accusations of abuse."

The mayor also stated that body cameras: "bring increased accountability and transparency for both the police officers and for the public."

But these goals - which the Mayor has announced and which many in law enforcement and in the political arena support  - are being squelched by special interests or even by the same parties who say they support "transparency and accountability" at the Minnesota Legislature.The Senate proposal - which made its way to the floor as an amendment to the license plate reader bill and passed the Senate - is one which in broad terms does not allow public access to  body camera videos.  The legislation takes the current presumption of public access to police body came video and turns it upside down.  One criticism of the approach that the Minnesota Senate took is that there was not a collegial group discussion in the committee process about what privacy protections are already in current law.

Senate File 498 (the Senate body cam bill), says that data are not available to the public except in very limited situations.  I take the position that in some cases the data will be secret.  Privacy in some scenarios is another word for secrecy.  Videos collected by police would not be available to the public except in very limited situations.  For example, take the recent incident of Jamar Clark's shooting.  The standard in the current bill is if the incident involved a dangerous weapon, which was the case, and took place in a public place, which it did, the data would be public......but if the incident happened in a house, it would not be available to the public.

If body cameras are to be a tool to persuade the public that law enforcement can be trusted, accountable, and transparent, the Senate approach is the inappropriate way. To make sure that law enforcement officers and police administrators are doing their job appropriately,  public data is needed.  Proponents of the Senate bill say one just has to get consent of the individual to get access to the video.  Many people are not going to give consent for a number of reasons.  The court process laid out to gain access in the bill is just as high as the "blue wall" which many in the public perceive and believe there is.

There is power with the use of the body camera,.  Who has that power - the guidelines and rules - is what the legislation is all about.

Many actions of law enforcement would be secret under the Senate proposal.  For example, arrests, use of force, detainment, stop and frisk, and testimony.  In those cases, body cameras would become worthless tools for public accountability.

When the Duluth Police Department released body camera video of how a law enforcement officer saved an individual from suicide, I had this thought :if the Senate bill was law, there would be many videos released showing officers doing their duties well, but many others would be kept in the dark, when an officer's duties fall short.

There are issues to consider about public disclosure of body camera videos, but it is important to take the current law in consideration.  Many private situations are already addressed.  Specific concerns can be addressed, but the Senate bill did not take the made-to-measure approach. This is one significant reason among several why it is opposed by several organizations and advocates for transparency/accountability such as the The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, and the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

The Minnesota House did not move on a bill this past session.

Significant large issues need legislative addressing and discussion:

- Fourth Amendment/First Amendment issues. (consent in home/surveillance)

- Role of contractors and vendors.

- Advancement and changing of technology with body cameras. ( such as live stream, facial recognition, miniaturization)

- Use of body camera video for secondary purposes by law enforcement.

- Enforcement and compliance of policies. ( such as same standards across he state or different for each agency)

- Retention. (how long should video be kept, ie)

- When body cameras are on and off.

The list is not final, and issues will arise as discussion, information, and knowledge is gained by the public and policymakers.

It is my intent to make sure that if body cameras are to be used by Minnesota law enforcement, they are not a front for accountability which would create more distrust, and continue the legacy of decades of "tension and hostility" in the communities where law enforcement officers serve. There are grievances because of abrasive/abusive practices and behavior, "further aggravated by the lack of effective mechanism" to deal with complaints against law enforcement.  Body cameras are being proposed to be an effective mechanism for oversight.

But oversight will be hollow and vacant if the laws that regulate the power of this law enforcement tool do not provide real transparency.

Update: February 3, 2016

Since this post has been published an alternative bill (Rep. Peggy Scott) on body cameras has been a subject of a Joint-Committee hearing among the others. The draft bill is listed among the Senate version and current House bill.

Civil Law and Data Practices
House Civil Law and Data Practices, House Public Safety and Crime Prevention and Senate Judiciary Joint Hearing

Room: Room 200 State Office Building
Chair: Rep. Peggy Scott, Rep. Tony Cornish and Sen. Ron Latz


HF430InfoCornishPortable recording system provisions added, and audio and video data captured by a law enforcement officer classified.

Informational hearing on policy related to police-worn body cameras

MG 108 (attached)

Committee Documents:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Who has power with body cameras, the cops or you?

The Minnesota Legislature is being pushed hard by law enforcement interests to make much body camera video unavailable to the public  The Senate has already passed a bill making secret a fair amount of body camera video.  Law enforcement is pushing hard for secrecy because they want to keep from the public the ability to monitor police prejudice, abusive/abrasive behavior and practices, and the dual standard of law enforcement that is in our community.  Bottom line, law enforcement does not want the public to have the power to do the oversight of accountability of law enforcement with the new tool of body cameras.

There is power with the use of body cameras, in viewing hours of body camera videos, I see how it can be used by the public to truly use as a tool to have appropriate control over conduct by police, to help eliminate of abusive and abrasive practices by cops, and to counteract the dual standard of law enforcement in our community which has permeated for years.  The videos I watched would all become secret if the Senate's version of the body camera bill becomes law.

A representative of law enforcement recently compared body cameras to cans of mace - making the point that they are both tools for police. The body camera is not just any tool, however.  It may be a tool for law enforcement, but it is also a tool for public accountability - but only if the data is available to the public.

There is power with the use of body cameras, who has that power and the rules of it is going to be front and center next legislative session.  Right now law enforcement may have an edge to have less public accountability, less transparency, and have the power with the use of body cameras, unless the public gets involved.

Personal note:
If anyone is interested to have me speak to a group, organization, or anyone on the issue of body cameras contact me: or follow me with a message on Twitter @richneumeister

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

St Paul Library destroying materials of our city's history?

Fast on the heels of the City's of St Paul recent decision to purge it's government e-mails every three months comes a new revelation: the St Paul Public Library is in the process of deciding to trash thousands upon thousands of historical newspaper clippings.

For decades, the library has maintained a "Subject Morgue File" collection.  It consists of newspaper clippings from the St Paul Pioneer Press and the St Paul Dispatch, and it dates from the first part of the twentieth century - 1910-1945.  Due to its painstaking subject-by subject file arrangement, the collection represents the only searchable repository of local news from the time period.  A collection of historical value that could be part of the St Paul Collection.

The clippings it seems were loaned to the library by the Pioneer Press to be used by researchers and interested members of the public.  For the past several years, however, the files have been kept away from public view, and now library management seems intent on destroying them permanently.

There are many questions to be asked here: Why is the library so intent on gutting, rather than preserving and displaying (St Paul Collection), this unique collection?  Are the collection of clippings, able to be wiped out if it is someone else's property?

St Paul has been considered the half of the Twin Cities that has retained its sense and appreciation of history, even as its twin to the West has continued to plow its past under.  The St Paul Library (St Paul) now tossing that sensibility to the wind by throwing more and more of its history down Orwell's "memory hole?"

There needs to be involvement by the Library Board and the public as the library makes such decisions to have such a vital source of local history disappear.  Move quickly, decision may be made at the end of the  week