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Nude beachgoers filmed by police drone, Golden Valley explains why

After criticism for singling out Black people and recording topless beachgoers, the city is sharing its side of the story.

Beachgoers, some topless, at a beach on Twin Lake, near Theodore Wirth Park, were surveilled using a police drone the evening of Friday, July 10. And after spotting illegal activity, police showed up to collect information on the people who broke the law.

By the time police arrived, most people had covered up, a beachgoer told WCCO, but police still collected their information.

Video (it does contain profanity) posted publicly to Facebook shows when the officers were at the beach, with the beachgoer who posted the video describing what she witnessed in the caption, saying after using the drone, police arrived and "b-lined it" to the Black people.

"If they gave everyone tickets for being topless, I would be less irate," the caption said, but the poster noted they saw only Black people and one white person get spoken to about their behavior.

The video, and others recorded that day, have been viewed thousands of times on social media and has led to criticism of the Golden Valley Police Department, who arrived on scene with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) Police Department (they share jurisdiction of the area). 

Criticisms have ranged from their use of a drone to record people topless, deciding to take enforcement action and their interactions with people at the beach.

Golden Valley responds

Nearly a week after the incident, the Golden Valley Police Department explained itself in an emailed news release Thursday saying it and MPRB police were responding to "complaints of potentially unsafe conditions and illegal activity at an unauthorized beach in Theodore Wirth Park." The activity was illegal consumption of alcohol and nudity. 

After reviewing the drone footage, police responded to the beach to get personal information from the people who appeared to be violating the law, the release said. They got information from eight people to decide if they should issue citations, noting two people were people of color. Citations have not yet been issued. 

"The city acknowledges the feelings of all involved in the July 10 situation and those who viewed the video footage. The city appreciates that context matters and that there is a heightened awareness around policing behavior," the news release says. "GVPD officers strive to provide fair and unbiased services and take pride in maintaining positive relationships with members of the community. Their priority is to ensure that citizens’ complaints are answered and that parks are safe so all people feel welcomed."

The city notes that police have been responding to the beach "for decades" based on complaints from residents and parkgoers, noting that it's been the location of sexual assaults, sexual activities, a substance-related drowning, drunk driving and narcotics arrests.

In the past year, Golden Valley PD has written more than 40 citations at the beach for violations, including indecent exposure, consuming alcohol and after-hours park usage. 

Use of drones

As news of the drone use spread, some people were unnerved at the idea police were using a drone to film people in the nude.

It is legal for police to use a drone to film people in public spaces because they have no expectation of privacy from being recorded by security devices, according to Minnesota law

Police in Golden Valley use drones to "promote public safety and collect evidence, especially in difficult to access areas and as a de-escalation tool," the release said, adding that the city has been using drones during the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid unnecessary interactions between police and the public.

The city said its drone footage is used for documentation, evidence collection and prosecution if needed, and it is only viewed by trained staff. The data is deleted "as soon as possible," the city noted. The city's drone policy is available on its website here.

Going topless

In Minnesota, it's legal for anyone to go topless so long as you're not being lewd. But a Minneapolis park ordinance explicitly prohibits females older than 10 from exposing their breast below the top of the areola. 

But this week, the MPRB took the first step in repealing that portion of its ordinance, which would make it OK for anyone to go topless in the city's parks and parkways. A public hearing on the matter is planned for next month. 

If the ordinance does get repealed, WCCO says it could potentially impact the Twin Lake beach since part of the lake lies within Theodore Wirth Park, which is under the MPRB's jurisdiction.

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