Minnesota passes body cam bill, but you won't be seeing much footage

The body cam bill the Minnesota Legislature just passed isn't about everyday police accountability.

The body cam bill the Minnesota Legislature just passed isn't about everyday police accountability.

The case for putting body cameras on cops is pretty self-evident. People need to know what the hell really happened, as soon as possible, when an unarmed person is shot and killed by a police officer.

Being denied that how and why while heads spin and emotions boil tends to make people want to take over the streets and occupy a police precinct until they get their answers.

But implementing body cams has been a nightmare balancing act between government transparency and citizens’ right to privacy.

The poor beat cops during last November’s Jamar Clark occupation had no idea how to handle that. Without body cams, footage of the Clark shooting pieced together from businesses and ambulances was fragmented, pixelated, and silent.

There was no state law on the books that clearly outlined when video had to be released, and whether doing so would hinder a criminal investigation.

On Monday, the Minnesota House finally passed a bipartisan bill that gives police departments guidance on using body cameras. The bill, which succeeded 95-33, establishes what's to be considered public versus private video footage. Cop-civilian interactions on public ground, where the cop either used a dangerous weapon or beat somebody up, would be public. Everything else: private and confidential.

Anyone caught on camera would have the right to look at the footage. If they want a copy of it, others who were filmed but do not consent to its release must have their faces blurred from the copy, their voices bleeped out. Cops who are only accused of unprofessionalism – for example, cussing out a civilian, or anything else that’s just short of substantial bodily harm (whatever that means) – can also request anonymity.

Individual police departments get to make up a lot of their own rules, including when the cameras have to be rolling, what consequences cops will face if they’re not, and who’s gonna be in charge of collecting, withholding, and editing that footage.

The bill's on its way to the governor’s desk, but a whole lot of people aren’t happy about it. They include some of Minnesota’s strongest advocates for body cameras, such as the NAACP and the ACLU.

“A bill that is going to be passed by this legislature needs to be the right one, a bill that strikes a balance between privacy, transparency, and accountability,” Minneapolis NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds testified last week. “And unfortunately SF 498 does not do that. It weighs too heavily in favor of law enforcement.”

Just prior to the House passing the bill, Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) echoed the same concerns about the many public access limitations.

“This is about whether the public, mainly the news media, is going to be able to look at what the police are doing and review arrests that are made, and kind of get an overall view of how the police are conducting themselves," Liebling said.

"My general view is that most police departments are really struggling to do the best job they can. But it's also really really important that the public have confidence that's what the police are doing. And that's when it becomes really important that the public have access.”

The ACLU has already begun a petition for Gov. Mark Dayton to veto the bill.