Police body cameras: Who benefits? Local forum highlights divide between police and community

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Police body cameras made national news when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton told an audience at Columbia University that they should be mandatory for all police departments. Currently, the use of these devices is spotty, with no state or federal mandate requiring local police to adopt their use. According to an ACLU study, about 25% of U.S. policing agencies are using the pager-sized devices, and 80% are studying them.

Closer to home, police experts, local elected officials and citizen leaders shared their views on body cameras on April 29 at a panel discussion hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Policy & Affairs. Billed as a conversation about data privacy, the three separate panel discussions provided insight into a variety of issues around body cameras – including how much discretion, if any, officers should have in turning them on and off.

The views on this hot-button issue broke down along predictable lines. All of those representing policing – Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke, Minneapolis Deputy Chief Travis Glampe, and Duluth Assistant City Attorneys Teri Lehr and Nate LaCoursiere – felt strongly that officers should be able to use their own discretion about when to turn off cameras.

 “We had to change our policies about using the body cameras after the officers began using them,” said Lehr. “We wanted the officers to have discretion about turning them on and off.”

 Burnsville was the first Minnesota police agency to use body cameras, beginning in the summer of 2010. Duluth followed with full implementation in May, 2014, and Minneapolis and Rochester are currently piloting their use. Burnsville Chief Gieseke said that he believes the body cameras have been effective for his department.

“It’s been a very positive experience, good for [officer] morale, and has led to a great conviction rate.”

 Minneapolis’ deputy chief Travis Glampe says his officers “Have gotten over the fear of technology, that Big Brother is watching you. I told them, ‘Everyone else is filming you… you should be filming yourselves.”

 “During the pilot, we are talking to officers and the public,” said Glampe, who explained that the policies adopted will include language about when an officer “should” turn on the body camera, allowing for some discretion, and when they “shall,” allowing for none. “Officers will be held accountable if they don’t use the cameras properly.”

 But what about the potential benefit to citizens? The second panel, which featured data privacy expert Don Gemberling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, Teresa Nelson of the Minnesota ACLU, and Minneapolis School Board and former City

Council member Don Samuels, disagreed with the policing panel on the discretion issue.

 “Body cameras help the cops stay on the straight and narrow,” Gemberling said.

Nelson agreed. “The police should have very little discretion. They should not be able to direct their own movie and edit it on the fly, resulting in only the stuff the police want to film. Any time there’s some enforcement action, there should be a policy to keep the body cam on. Not doing so should result in discipline and consequences.” An exception, she said, is when someone requests that they not be filmed; Nelson believes that in order to protect individual privacy rights, officers should state that an interaction is being filmed, particularly when they are about to enter someone’s home.

 Samuels says that communities of color don’t believe body cameras will benefit them. “People are not excited about body cameras. There is a distrust of police and body cameras – people trust phone videos, and think they are more objective.”

 Elected officials State Rep. John Lesch (DFL-Saint Paul) and Bloomington City Council member Andrew Carlson, are wary of police discretion in the use of body cameras. “It is absolutely our job to second-guess an officer’s actions,” Carlson said. Lesch said that although legislation about body cameras has been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature, he doesn’t expect there to be any action taken this year.

 The lack of action may not be all bad for citizens concerned about the use of body cams for the sole benefit of law enforcement. The ACLU’s Teresa Nelson expressed concern about pending legislation. “The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and local police federation drafted the bills, and attempts to modify them have met with frustration.”

Samuels, the sole person of color on the panels, noted the disproportionate number of African Americans who are charged with crimes and are the victims of police brutality – and have no input on the use of body cameras. “Those folks don’t get up and testify at legislative hearings.”

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