How does St. Paul plan to use body cams to improve police transparency and accountability? It’s a secret.

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Mayor Chris Coleman has said he would consider body cameras but has repeatedly cautioned that they are not a cure-all for strained police-community relations.

The St. Paul Police Department is asking the federal government for money to equip patrol officers with body cameras — a program trending nationally to increase transparency and accountability with the public.

The application, which lays out what the program will look like, is secret.

That, at least, was the determination of the department when it denied a request under the state Data Practices Act for a copy of the grant request. Sgt. Paul Paulos, spokesman for the department, said St. Paul is citing two exemptions under state disclosure law to justify its refusal. One exempts “security information,” which is defined as data “likely to substantially jeopardize the security of information, possessions, individuals or property against theft, tampering, improper use, attempted escape, illegal disclosure, trespass, or physical injury.”

Examples are “checking account numbers, crime prevention block maps and lists of volunteers who participate in community crime prevention programs and their home and mailing addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail or other digital addresses, Internet communication services accounts information or similar accounts information, and global positioning system locations.”

This same exemption would exempt from disclosure trade secrets, labor relations information and parking space leasing data.

Minneapolis police have not yet responded to a public disclosure request for its application, but an unofficial copy does not appear to contain any information that would be covered by the “security information” exemption cited by St. Paul. It instead answers questions posed by the Department of Justice about the city’s demographics, what data supports the request and how cameras might address officer complaints and use-of-force practices.

UPDATE: Minneapolis Deputy Chief Travis Glampe Thursday afternoon said the department has detemined that its grant application is a public document and released it under the state Data Practices Act.

“The use of BWC (body worn cameras) will lead officers to a greater use of de-escalation techniques,” the Minneapolis application states. “Consequently, it is expected that the amount of use of force will decline.”

Second disclosure exemption

St. Paul also cited another disclosure exemption in state law, this one covering the state’s grant application process, that blocks release of grant applications until final decisions are made. That exemption appears to be designed to prevent one applicant from seeing the information provided by rivals. In the case of the federal body-camera grant program, however, the deadline for applications was June 16. Seeing the applications of other cities now would be of no advantage to cities that have either already submitted their applications or missed the deadline.

Even so, the second exemption cited by the St. Paul police does not apply to federal grant applications.

Mayor Chris Coleman’s communications director, Tonya Tennessen, referred all questions about the program and the application to the police department. Paulos would only say the application was secret and later cited the two exemptions he said backed up the rejection. Amy Brown, who runs the department’s research and grants management, did not respond to repeated voice mail messages.

The grants were announced by President Barack Obama Dec. 1 at a White House conference called in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  By then, the Minneapolis City Council had responded to Mayor Betsy Hodges’ call for a pilot program to test equipment and measure how the cameras impacted policing. That test has been completed and the city wants to pursue a full rollout by February 2016. The program was delayed only so the city would not get so far ahead in its plans that it would not be eligible for the 50 percent federal match — $600,000.

Minneapolis’ plans

Minneapolis projects a program with 616 cameras plus data storage and management with a budgeted $1.2 million. (The city will hold its third public listening session at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 25, at the Minneapolis Adult Education Center, Room 140, 2125 East Lake St.) The federal grant program is even more competitive than thought. Obama wanted $75 million set aside, but the Bureau of Justice Assistance program has shrunk to $20 million. It expects to award money to 50 departments across the country with one-third being smaller departments.

“Body worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve,” said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in announcing the grant contest May 1.

St. Paul has taken a different path toward body cameras. Coleman has said he would consider body cameras but has repeatedly cautioned that they are not a cure-all for strained police-community relations. Coleman also has raised issues of privacy that need to be resolved first.

In February Coleman rejected a City Council resolution that called on the police chief to present a body-camera program in his 2016 budget request. While he did not sign the resolution, he said his action comes “with the understanding that you have communicated the sentiments of the council on this matter and have left future action to me.”

Posts seek residents’ input

The police department recently posted a link on its Twitter and Facebook accounts asking residents to take a survey on body cams.

“As with all our efforts, community partnerships, trust, and communication are essential to developing the best programs for our department, our officers, and of course, our citizens,” the introduction states. Questions include, “Do you generally believe that police body cameras could help increase community trust in law enforcement?” “Do you believe the behavior of a police officer wearing a body-worn camera would be improved with the presence of the camera?” and, “If you were involved in an incident that was recorded on a police body-worn camera (victim, witness, suspect, other) do you believe YOU should have the right to request that those images be considered private?”

Eight of the 15 questions involve privacy issues over who can see video record by police officers and who can demand that it be undisclosable.

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