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State agency rejects police request to keep most body camera footage private

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Minnesota state officials have rejected a call from police chiefs around the state to keep private most of the data recorded by police body cameras.

A group of about 18 law enforcement agencies had made the request a few weeks ago. They expressed concerns that making the video footage public could violate the privacy of people who interact with police, noting that many would be filmed in sensitive situations.

Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell spearheaded the request, saying he's also concerned about the possibility that video footage could be posted on social media sites or used to intimidate people, MPR News notes.

Administration Commissioner Mark Massman rejected the request Monday, saying he doesn't have the authority to act on the matter. That's because state privacy laws currently consider the footage public records, similar to written police reports, according to the Associated Press.

It's in the Legislature's hands

As the Star Tribune notes, Massman did agree that the privacy issues need to be addressed. However, he said the only way to do that right now is to make the case to legislators that a new law is needed to regulate the use of body cameras and the footage they record.

"The application clearly demonstrates both the national and statewide significance of these issues, ones that can only be fully addressed through the legislative process," Massman wrote. (Read his entire ruling, posted by the Star Tribune)

A bill introduced in the Legislature last session would have kept most body-camera video private, but it didn't advance very far. A similar measure is expected to be debated again next year.

Police body cameras are often portrayed as the next step in transparency, a safeguard in the wake of increased tensions between officers and the public.

Proponents of that transparency say restricting public access to the video runs counter to what the use of cameras is supposed to achieve: transparency and accountability for law enforcement.

Next steps

Even while the privacy debate continues, more law enforcement agencies in Minnesota and around the country are equipping their officers with the small devices. Just last week, the federal government announced it was giving three Minnesota cities grant money to implement body camera programs.

Minneapolis and St. Paul were awarded $600,000 each, while the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe received $41,967.

The grant money will be used to purchase cameras, train officers on their use, and examine their impact. Each agency awarded a grant is also required to develop a plan for long-term storage, including the cost of storing data from the cameras.

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