Minnesota lawmakers want to help police departments around the state buy body cameras for their officers. But for the second year in a row, that money might get held up by a disagreement over when and how police should release footage when a cop kills someone.
Democrats who have a majority in the state House have introduced a bill that includes $2.5 million for body cameras, but it would also require departments who use the grant program to let the family of a person who was killed by police see the video within seven days in most cases.
The policy is less restrictive than body camera regulations that DFLers proposed in 2021, drawing criticism from some reform activists who want a quicker 48-hour timeline for the family of someone killed by a cop to watch the body camera footage. At the same time, police groups believe decisions on video release should be made by local governments and law enforcement. Republicans who control the state Senate have also balked at requirements for quickly releasing footage, worrying it might interfere with investigations, even though they support money for body cameras.
After Minneapolis police fatally shot Amir Locke last week — with officers entering the apartment where Locke was staying using a no-knock search warrant — there has been renewed interest in body camera policy, as the city faced calls to quickly disclose the footage to shed light on the controversial killing. But without agreement at the Capitol on body camera regulations, there won’t be money for departments who don’t have the technology, meaning many who say body cameras are too expensive for them to buy and use will continue to operate without them.
A survey released in July of 2021 by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association found the number of police departments in the state using body cameras has almost doubled in the last five years. Even so, of the 214 chiefs who responded, 95 said they still don’t have the technology. The most common barrier is cost, particularly ongoing expenses for data storage and disclosure.
For instance, the Austin police department in southern Minnesota didn’t have body cameras when an officer killed Kokou Christopher Fiafonou in late December. The city is now planning to buy them, but previously said cost was one factor for why Austin police didn’t have them yet.
Gov. Tim Walz’s administration estimates there are 9,000 officers statewide unequipped with body cameras, and say it costs roughly $1,000 per officer each year to buy and use them.
In 2021, Democrats introduced a bill that included $2 million in grants for police departments around the state to buy body cameras. Near the end of last year’s legislative session, a $1 million grant program was agreed to by legislative leaders and included in a preliminary bill with public safety and police accountability measures. But Democrats in the end removed the money, saying they wanted police departments who get financial aid to be subject to disclosure rules when officers kill people.
This year, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have again proposed money for body cameras. A House DFL bill sponsored by state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a New Hope Democrat and vice chairman of the House’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, includes $2.5 million for body cameras. State Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, introduced a bill that would spend $5 million on grants for local police agencies to buy body cameras, while Walz has proposed $9 million for body camera grants.
But once again, regulations around disclosure of body camera footage may lead to a stalemate over the legislation.
Under current law, video of an officer using force that causes “substantial bodily harm,” or footage of police shooting a gun, is considered to be public. But it’s still private in cases tied to investigation of potential crimes.
There is an exception, however, for if releasing the video is critical to “promote public safety,” quell unrest or dispel rumors. The Brooklyn Center police department quickly released video last year of when then-officer Kim Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright during a traffic stop.
Democrats last year wanted a policy that allows families to view body camera footage within 48 hours under most circumstances. That regulation was tied to officers using the proposed grant program, though some DFLers also pushed for it to be a statewide requirement for all police. Police said, however, that officials need time to properly interview people after police use deadly force, and releasing footage could interfere with a neutral investigation.
The new seven-day timeline in Frazier’s legislation is much longer. It also says police chiefs can deny a request for the family to view the footage quickly if investigators can show a compelling reason why it would interfere with an investigation. But the bill does require the release of all video from police killings to family within 90 days. The legislation also says officers, “whenever practicable,” have to notify occupants of a house they’re being recorded while entering.
During a late January press conference before the legislative session, Frazier said DFLers talked “repeatedly and consistently” with law enforcement last year to find the best way to write transparency language so it wouldn’t interfere with any investigations.
“I think we’ve got to a pretty good spot there,” Frazier said. “We’ve got support from law enforcement, so we’re going to move forward and we hope that we’ll get that through with the policy and the funding intact to get those police departments that don’t have the resources they need to get those body cameras in place.”
A week later, however, Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA), said in a letter to Frazier’s committee that his organization urges “implementation of policy be left at the local level to allow for community engagement and input.”
Peters also balked at the requirement for notifying people inside a home that they are being videotaped, saying it “fails to take into consideration the high stakes situations officers routinely encounter, where diffusing a violent situation or protecting a life in imminent danger must come first.”
In a joint letter, the chiefs of police association and the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association said they oppose any statewide policy for body worn cameras, and urged body camera policy to be written by a “community and their local law enforcement agency.”
“Sheriffs and Chiefs of many cities can tell you the value of community meetings and listening sessions they had to formulate their body camera policy WITH their community,” the letter says.
The organizations wrote they don’t object to allowing family members to see body camera footage of when someone was killed by police, but said the legislation “does not consider how long the interview process takes in these cases.”
“Traditionally these interviews take closer to 14 days to complete,” the letter says. “We support simply making the data public to all in these incidents after the interview process has concluded.”
The police chiefs, sheriffs and MPPOA also said the $2.5 million in Frazier’s bill would not be enough to cover the need for body cameras around the state. (Though Frazier said during a recent hearing that Democrats plan to increase the amount of money available in their proposal based on that feedback.)
Meanwhile, the body camera grant bill introduced by Duckworth, the GOP senator from Lakeville, has no transparency regulations. State Sen. Warren Limmer, a Republican from Maple Grove who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee said last year that the GOP did offer House Democrats legislation to require release of footage within 30 days, mainly to give time for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which investigates when police kill someone, to interview all involved.
Limmer also said there should be time to properly redact video to make sure the identity of anyone in the footage, such as a bystander, isn’t improperly revealed, or information such as a person’s medical condition isn’t shown. He suggested the Legislature’s Commission on Data Practices overseeing public records policy has more expertise on the issue of redacting and releasing body-camera video. Limmer at the time urged the committee, which is made up of House and Senate lawmakers, to examine the issue and come up with recommendations.
“Certainly the statements that have been accumulated for criminal record has not been fulfilled if it’s done too early,” Limmer said last year of releasing footage. “And as a result it could result either in difficult evidentiary standards, or in the event that there is someone’s identity revealed that should not be. And that takes time to develop that redaction.”
In the DFL a hearing on Friday, Frazier’s bill also drew criticism for not sticking to the shorter timeline for family members to view body camera footage as originally proposed. Amity Dimock, the mother of Kobe Dimock-Heisler, a man with autism who had a knife when he was fatally shot by police in Brooklyn Center in August of 2019, said she wanted a 48-hour requirement.
In her own case, Dimock said Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott only allowed her to see the footage of her son’s death months later, amid widespread protests and riots four days after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. “I don’t think that any individual family should have to rely on public pressure to get videos early,” she said, advocating for a new state policy.
But, Dimock said, only letting families view the tape wasn’t enough. Families should get videos to keep, she said. She said she got a certain amount of time to watch the footage “maybe once, maybe twice.” But when she later got recordings — 44 of them — she watched them between 30 to 50 times to truly understand what happened.
“When I look at the ‘view only’ in 7 days .. that’s unacceptable,” Dimock said. Two days “is where it should be,” she said.