Thursday, April 28, 2016

The City Spot Café: Body Cams and Data Classification

What you need to know about body cams right now, served up by the LMC Research and Information Service team. 

 Definition: Body-worn video cameras, also known as “body cams,” are closed-circuit television video recording systems often placed on the front of a law enforcement officer’s uniform.

Plain-language explanation: Body cams are typically worn by law enforcement to record their interactions with the public or to gather video evidence at crime scenes, and have the potential to increase both officer and citizen accountability. Body cams are notable because they can provide a first-person perspective and a more complete chain of evidence than, say, a dash cam.

In the news: Several high profile cases of officer-involved shootings have made the use of body cameras a hot topic. Here in Minnesota, some local governments and law enforcement agencies are choosing to adopt body cam use, or are in the process of figuring out how to pay for them, while others are waiting for clarification from the Legislature on how data from body cams should be handled before deciding whether to adopt this new technology.

Pros: Police-worn body cameras have the potential to provide evidence when investigating crimes and prosecuting criminals, and to strengthen trust of citizens in law enforcement by increasing the accountability between peace officers and the public. The data collected in use-of-force incidents can help determine whether an officer used appropriate force and clarify conflicting accounts of events. The data from body cameras can also help protect peace officers who are falsely accused of wrongdoing.

Cons: The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA) generally classifies this video data as public. A peace officer can never know when a routine interaction will become important or controversial, and in order to ensure that body cams record important information the cameras will likely be turned on in many situations that ultimately do not result in criminal investigations such as traffic stops, welfare checks, and medical assistance calls—i.e. those really crummy days when you’d rather not have your cameo made available for all to see. The MGDPA provides privacy protections for certain crime victims, witnesses, minors, and vulnerable adults, but the video data collected on the vast majority of citizens who would otherwise be protected by these privacy protections or are not part of a criminal investigation would be available to anyone who requested it.

In addition to privacy concerns, departments using body cameras must have the resources available for collecting and storing these video files, and for responding to requests for video data. This cost may be too expensive for small cities, and larger cities with lots of video data may need to hire new staff for managing the data.  

League position: Local law enforcement agencies should be allowed to decide whether to equip law enforcement officers with body cams and be given the flexibility to decide how they are used in the field. In order to protect the privacy rights of citizens, to maintain trust between law enforcement and the public, and to protect all crime victims, the MGDPA should be amended to classify video data as “private data on individuals” or “nonpublic data” unless it is part of an active criminal investigation, in which case it should be classified as “active criminal data.” This classification of active criminal data balances the interests of transparency and privacy by allowing the subjects of data to access video and share it with the public if they desire. (See definitions of data classifications in MN law here)

Video data involving the use of force by a peace officer that causes at least demonstrable bodily harm should be classified as public data despite an active investigation to ensure public accountability by law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies should also have the discretion to make public any videos that would otherwise be classified as private data on individuals or nonpublic data when necessary to dispel suspicion or unrest, such as in cases when an accusation of misbehavior is made but no “demonstrable bodily harm” was involved.

Resources: The League of Minnesota Cities has developed a memo and model policy for police departments considering the use of body cameras. You can learn more about body cam legislation being discussed at the Capitol in the Cities Bulletin.

This information has been compiled by Amber Eisenschenk, staff attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: aeisenschenk@lmc.org or (651) 281-1227. 

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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