It’s not really up to the Minneapolis Police Department to decide whether residents can record officers as they go about their duties across the city.
That right is covered by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and confirmed by multiple federal court rulings. The department can, however, make it city policy to recognize that right — and to discipline officers who interfere with residents who are using audio or video recording devices.
A new policy doing both took effect last month, Deputy Chief Medaria Arradondo told a City Council committee Wednesday. He said the topic came up as the department was drafting a new policy on police body cameras.
The policy recognizes “the unambiguous First Amendment right to record police officers while they are conducting official business or while acting in an official capacity in any public space.”
Officers can’t delete footage
The only exception to the right to record is when the person recording is deemed to be interfering with police activities. But the policy also says that recording of police actions from a “safe distance, without any action to obstruct the activity or threaten the safety of an officer, does not constitute interference.”
A police supervisor must be notified and — “if safe to do so” — called to the scene before an officer takes any action against someone recording.
The policy also makes it a violation of department policy for an officer to tell anyone that recording is not allowed or that it requires the officer’s consent. And it makes it a violation for an officer to delete footage or to order someone to delete footage.
The policy does contain language saying that if officers believe a recording contains evidence, they can ask to take possession of the footage and process it as evidence. Only if the officer fears the evidence will be destroyed — and doesn’t think there is time to obtain a warrant — can they notify a supervisor. In no cases are recordings to be erased, and the device used to record it is to be returned as soon as practical.
The new policy was adopted without objections from the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation.
Body-cam draft policy allows pre-report review
Arradondo discussed the right to record while updating the committee on the department’s body-camera policy. The policy remains in draft form, but Arradondo said it will be finalized before the first officers are equipped with cameras — something expected to happen in mid-July, in the department’s first precinct.
The cameras will not be activated at all times but are to be switched on before any citizen contact, from traffic stops to forced entries into a building. Officers can also activate a camera at their discretion during any “general citizen contact” if they feel recording is appropriate, including when taking statements from witnesses, victims or suspects. The policy says they should attempt to get consent before recording.
One controversial aspect is whether police can review footage before they write their reports. Some have opposed such viewing, arguing that a report should be based on what the officer observed and noted during an event. Gov. Mark Dayton even insisted that the body-camera bill he signed not contain a provision that gave officers that permission.
But because the law that Dayton signed is now silent on the issue, MPD believes it can include the pre-report review of camera footage in its policy.
“We still believe that officers being allowed to view their body-cam footage prior to writing a report really helps in terms of ensuring the accuracy of those reports,” Arradondo said.
However, footage that records “critical incidents” — use of deadly force by or against an officer, a death or “great bodily harm” to an officer or another person — is not to be viewed by the officer involved and is to be turned over to independent investigators.
Only ‘critical incidents’ deemed public
As per state law, only those people captured in a video have a right to get a copy. However, in cases that are considered critical incidents, footage is deemed public and can be requested by anyone.
Officers who violate the body-cam policy will be subject to discipline, up to termination. The police federation has cooperated in the development of the policy as well as with last year’s pilot program to test two versions of the cameras. But a lawyer for the union said they are concerned with language that allows supervisors, “when conducting force reviews,” to view any body-cam footage as part of that review.
Attorney Jim Michels said the federation is concerned that department leaders could pull all the footage of a given officer to check up on him or her, something he dubbed a “witch hunt.” If footage is used for surveillance of a given officer for possible discipline, that becomes a term and condition of employment and would have to be bargained with the federation, Michels said.
Arradondo said the audits of footage would be used to see if there are general training issues that are raised by the videos or to see if an officer’s actions might require “coaching” by supervisors. “It is a way for supervisors to do just that, supervise their people,” he said.
The City Council committee is not empowered to approve the policies but has asked to be briefed throughout the development of the policy. Chair Blong Yang expressed concerns Wednesday that the latest draft was not delivered to the committee until that morning. Arradondo said there was no attempt to conceal the policy, but said the department has been working on it constantly and will continue to.
“We’re not seeking perfection in this policy, but we are certainly trying to seek something that will establish good will and help us with the accountability and trust,” Arradondo said.