Maplewood police say access to body camera data needs limits

Mayor Nora Slawik live Tweeted during her ride-along with Maplewood police, which started at 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7. (submitted graphic)
Mayor Nora Slawik live Tweeted during her ride-along with Maplewood police, which started at 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7. (submitted graphic)

For her second annual summer ride-along with Maplewood police on Friday, Aug. 7, Mayor Nora Slawik shows up to the police station wearing black capris, a black T-shirt and sneakers.

It's a late-night shift she looks forward to every summer, she says. And it's not just for the adrenaline rush. It allows her to see police officers — and their new equipment — in action, when crime season is at its peak.

She plans on tagging along from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m., for traffic stops, domestic calls and whatever else is called in over the intercom or pops up on the mounted laptop screen.

"I'm looking for a deeper understanding," she says of local law enforcement's protocol and training and equipment needs.

"Last year was first grade. This year is second grade."

Not that far into her ride-along, the squad car heads over to a call for a "wellness check" in the Wendy's parking lot.

Police Chief Paul Schnell is already on site, attempting to de-escalate the situation.

A young adult male on Valium and vodka tells Schnell he's feeling depressed and suicidal — showing signs of agitation one minute and joking the next.

Because of his unpredictable disposition and apparent strength, Schnell says, he decides to handcuff the man until paramedics arrive to bring him to Regions Hospital for further evaluation.

"I think they did a good job handcuffing him and working with him," Slawik says afterwards. "It was hard to know if he was dangerous or not."

While none of the responding officers were wearing body cameras, the mayor had gotten a pretty good idea of what that video footage — which would have been available to anyone upon request and could have ended up online — would have looked like.

"If he gets five or 10 years older and has a career and [video footage of that night] gets out there, that was a really bad night," she says. "That could be really damaging for him for future jobs, future relationships."

It's a concern that has Schnell, along with a number of area chiefs, pushing for temporary classification of body-camera footage, until the state Legislature sets permanent regulations on the public's access to it.

Schnell presented the plan to the Maplewood City Council on July 13, securing its support, and will be finalizing a request this Thursday to soon bring before the Commissioner of Administration.

Protecting private moments

Since the use of body cameras is intended to help hold both police and suspects accountable, Schnell says there are some instances where certain individuals should, in fact, be able to access body-camera data.

"I believe one of the reasons people are supporting the use of body-worn cameras is because there is concern about making sure that the use of force is justified, fair and reasonable," he told the council.

He supports granting access to footage when an officer uses a weapon or force that causes substantial injury. The other exception would be granting subjects of a video access as well, along with their attorney, parent or another appointed representative.

Outside of these parameters, however, his main concern is protecting the privacy of those caught on video during a vulnerable moment that falls outside the already off-limits categories, including juvenile data, sexual assault victims and ongoing investigative cases.

"Offering unfettered public access to body-worn camera data is akin to knowingly allowing a window peeping into the events that may be highly personal and emotionally traumatizing and certainly not intended for the eyes and ears of others," Schnell said, addressing the council.

As of June 2014, the Maplewood Police Department began using body cameras. Three officers were selected to pilot the new technology, recording their shifts in their entirety. A fourth body camera is stored at the office, as a spare.

Given the constraints of data storage and management, the department has elected to retain all data for a minimum of 14 days before deleting anything that's not related to a case.

In seeking temporary classification for body-camera data, Schnell is collaborating with municipal and county law enforcement agencies, along with allied partners like the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Support thus far extends beyond the Maplewood City Council to state lawmakers as well.

"I just think it's important for people to understand that this really isn't about trying to avoid accountability for police," Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, says.

"This is about recognizing that so many of the calls that police make are into our homes, and they can be walking into our lives in a very vulnerable moment. I don't want someone to find that on YouTube."

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

 

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