Some of the people pushing the hardest for putting body cameras on police officers think there’s only one thing worse than not having video of interactions between police and residents: having such video but not making it available to the public.
If the purpose of the cameras is to increase police accountability and transparency, some camera backers argue, neither goal is served by a system that keeps video secret — or lets police departments decide what to release and what to keep private.
As the police departments in Minneapolis and St. Paul prepare to join Duluth and Burnsville in making body cameras standard equipment for street cops, the question of what to do with all the video officers will collect is moving to the front of the line for policy makers.
It isn’t just activists and watchdogs who want body cameras to be standard equipment, though. Many police agencies and officers, faced with the ubiquity of smartphones, want their own videos, thinking they could help exonerate officers accused of misconduct. The cameras might also change conduct on both sides of the lens. The most oft-cited study of body cameras, from Rialto, California, not only found a reduction in the use of force by police who used body cameras; it also found a reduction in citizen complaints.
Under current Minnesota law, video recorded by police body cameras is a public record, subject to exemptions aimed at protecting ongoing investigations and the privacy of victims and others.
Legislation that passed the Minnesota Senate earlier this year would have labeled most body camera videos as private, however — that is, not subject to disclosure under the state’s Data Practices Act. The exceptions would have been for videos recorded in public places that involve use of a deadly weapon or physical force by a cop that causes substantial bodily harm. Individuals captured in videos could also request copies. The House did not approve that language.
The ACLU of Minnesota, as well as its national parent organization, has suspended its normal opposition to government surveillance to give its support to police body camera programs.
“It’s the only thing we can think of to restore the credibility of the police — especially in minority communities,” said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota. “Police have lost credibility by the bushel, and we have to stop it because we need the police. But if [the body camera program] is not transparent, it won’t be effective.”
Response to Ferguson
Though police departments around the country have gradually been equipping officers with body cameras for years, their use took off after the August 9, 2014, shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson. No video was taken during that event.
In the wake of Ferguson, departments that hadn’t been considering adopting body cams started to, and departments that had been considering them moved up their timetable. Just five days after Ferguson, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who had called for MPD to get cameras during her 2013 campaign, included funding for the program in her budget address.
Then, on Dec. 1, at a White House conference called in the wake of Ferguson to discuss police and community relations, President Barack Obama threw his support behind body cameras, announcing a federal grant program to help police purchase the equipment. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have made application for grants.
Minneapolis has the benefit of a six-month pilot project in which it equipped 36 officers with cameras made by Taser International and VieVu. City officials were ready to pick a winning vendor this summer, but delayed so that the city could qualify for the federal grant.
The budget implications of dealing with data
The technology of body cameras allows police to record, upload and store the footage. What is lacking are policies to determine what to do with it.
There are two issues facing the early adopters. One is how to manage the huge amount of data involved. Duluth averages 150 megabytes of data per officer per day from its cameras. Under a full rollout, Minneapolis could be storing 75 gigabytes — or 75,000 megabytes — of data each day. Storing that video is expensive, so there is some interest in deleting video that is routine or hasn’t been flagged as relating to a criminal investigation or prosecution or is part of a citizen complaint or internal affairs investigation.
But for many, including some public officials, any mention of deleting video raises concerns.
“If we can’t get the confidence of the public that the footage isn’t manipulated and it’s reliable and it’s accountable, it won’t be as powerful and effective as it could be,” said Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon as a recent committee hearing. Gordon said the city needs to have strong controls to protect the integrity of the video.
Minneapolis estimates it already receives 10,000 DPA requests a month, many from insurance companies and lawyers requesting police reports.
Will Tetsell, the city’s auditor, said he thinks that number will increase substantially once cameras are placed on each street cop, a jump the city isn’t equipped to handle right now, he said. “If you were to ask the unit, they would probably say they’re not prepared for it,” Tetsell told a City Council committee about the police unit that responds to data requests.
It isn’t just finding the right recording. Requested videos have to be screened to make sure they are disclosable. They might have to be redacted to obscure faces and alter voices so as to protect the privacy of victims. The work of the video specialists then must be reviewed by the city attorney and police brass.
And though state law says DPA requests must be fulfilled as soon as possible, there is no specific time frame defined in law.
The Minneapolis Police Department leadership, in consultation with the police union, has taken the position that video is disclosable, which means that absent some change in state law, the issues are not what to disclose, but how to pay for the employees needed to process requests for data.
“If you have two people doing requests, ‘as soon as possible’ could be a year,” Tetsell said. “If you have 10 or 15 people, it might be a couple of weeks.”
“As everyone knows, some of the goals of the body camera pilot are transparency and accountability,” Tetsell said. “And we’d hate to see the city lose credibility if we weren’t able to proactively get ahead of that.”
Members of the the council’s public safety and civil rights committee seemed to favor broad release of videos and doing so quickly. But they worried about the budgetary implications.
“We can have a great body camera program at the front end but if on the back end we can’t produce that information maybe fast enough or quick enough or within a reasonable time period, it’s not going to be that great of a program,” said committee chair Blong Yang.
Council Member Linea Palmisano said the city needs to notify people who might appear in unredacted videos to give them an opportunity to object. And she said the city must agree to a definition of what it means to respond “as soon as possible.”
“The goal of transparency and accountability — that’s what this is all about,” Palmisano said. “But we don’t have the ability to scope a full body camera program today that provides timely access and is not a reputational risk.”
St. Paul is hoping to get cameras on officers later in 2016. Part of its outreach to residents is an online survey that asks for opinions on implementing a program. Half of the 15 questions were about public access to videos. “Do you believe if you were video recorded by an officer wearing a body-worn camera that ANY other member of the public should have a right to see those images upon request?” it asks. “Do you believe in certain places where you have an ‘expectation of privacy, like your home, that video recorded by police body-worn cameras should automatically be considered private?”
No help from the Legislature
Those are some of the questions that Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, tried to answer in the legislation he sponsored during the 2015 session. The language would have defined all body camera footage as private with exceptions for video recorded in public places and that capture use of a dangerous weapon or physical force by an officer. The same language would have allowed a victim to gain access to videos and make them public. And it set up a court process to open access to videos recorded in nonpublic places.
Latz’s bill was supported by many in law enforcement, but didn’t make it through the Minnesota House of Representatives. After reading Tetsell’s assertion that Minneapolis isn’t prepared to handle requests, Latz issued a statement, saying such concerns demonstrate “why we need a carefully written law to balance the public’s and data subject’s right to know what’s going on and to hold the police accountable, on the one hand, with the practical aspects of managing a huge quantity of data.
“Otherwise,” Latz said, “we will not be able to fully realize the benefits to all sides of using body cameras.”
Opponents of broad release of police video worry about privacy violations that would result if crime victims or bystanders had their most vulnerable moments displayed on the Internet. Being exposed that way might revictimize the victims, some worry. There has also been concern expressed that victims might be reluctant to seek help from police or allow them into their homes.
Some police departments — Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., for example — are mostly refusing to release video recordings. Others are using the threat of YouTube channels displaying embarrassing videos — as well as the fear of being inundated by huge data requests — as reasons to opt out of camera programs.
“Everyone’s worst day is now going to be put on YouTube for eternity,” Bremerton, Washington Police Chief Steven Strachan said in the New York Times.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 37 states considered body camera legislation this year. Fifteen adopted some measures related to the cameras, ranging from creating study commissions to offering state financial support for creating body cam programs.
In Minnesota, Latz’s bill was opposed by open government advocates. “Minnesota was willing to make everything private,” said the ACLU’s Samuelson. “It’s much better to have nothing than to have that.”
Different methods for disclosure
As daunting as the prospect of dealing with thousands of data requests for millions of videos — and to do so in ways that protects privacy and on-going investigations — there are some ideas for processing it all. Minneapolis has draft procedures that would direct offices to turn on cameras only during interactions with the public. One of the cameras tested — the one from Taser — is recording constantly but doesn’t store data until an officer double taps an activation button. That system then retains footage starting 30 seconds before activation.
By not recording from start of shift to end of shift, data storage for the Taser camera is somewhat more controlled. It also allows officers to fill out text fields for each video that categorizes the contents to trigger how long they are retained, and to make retrieval easier.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the national ACLU, has written proposed body camera policies that would have them in record mode at all times. To deal with the massive amount of storage that would be required from such a policy, Stanley proposes that most footage would be deleted “in relatively short order without ever being reviewed.”
“Retention periods should be measured in weeks, not years, and video should be deleted after that period unless a recording has been flagged,” he wrote. Flagging would be automatic in cases involving use of force, detention or arrest of a suspect and when formal or informal complaints have been registered against an officer.
One possible disclosure solution came about in an unusual way in Seattle, where the police are under a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve accusations regarding patterns of excessive use of force. Shortly after a pilot body camera project began, an anonymous data request was received for any and all video collected under the department’s existing dash camera program.
At the annual NCSL conference this week in Seattle, the chief operating officer for the Seattle Police Department, Mike Wagers, said the request would have been impossible to fulfill: the request covered two million videos consuming 365 terabytes of data. Though he referred to the requester as a “FOIA Terrorist,” a reference to the federal Freedom of Information Act — Wagers nevertheless contacted the man via social media and invited him to a meeting.
In response to Wagers’ concerns, the requester, Tim Clemans, agreed to organize a hackathon among the Seattle tech community that developed a crude but effective way of “batch-blurring” videos so no faces are seen. The Seattle department has since hired Clemans.
Wagers, who has a Ph.D. in criminal justice from Rutgers, said the department then did what everyone does with video: They put it on YouTube. People can watch over-redacted videos there and if they want a better version, they can make formal requests. Only then does the department review for disclosure exemptions and redact if necessary. Those are posted on the YouTube channel as well.
“The public is gonna expect we’re doing a lot more with our videos than storing them,” Wagers said.