Maplewood gathers input, advice on its police body-worn camera policy

On Sept 26, Maplewood police chief Paul Schnell presented the city council a review of the police department’s draft body-worn camera policy. This review included the perspectives of three guest speakers.

Schnell said the Maplewood police force has had body-worn cameras since April 2014, but the policy presented to the council would be an updated version of the existing policy.

The council discussed the draft policy and listened to the comments of guest speakers and residents, but no action was taken. Schnell said at the meeting that he intends to take into consideration the feedback from the council, residents and guest speakers and have a final proposed policy within 30 days for the council to vote on. 

The council has not yet determined which city council meeting this decision will be made at.

Highlights from the draft policy that received a lot of attention at the workshop and council meeting include that officers are not required to inform residents when they are recording, officers can essentially turn the camera on and off as they deem appropriate, in most circumstances officers can watch the footage to complete their reports and non-incident data is held for 90 days.

 

Consent and user discretion

Maplewood’s proposed policy does not require officers to inform people that the body worn camera is being worn or recorded, though the officer can disclose this if they believe it will de-escalate the situation. They are required to answer honestly if they are asked, according to Schnell.

The policy also states that officers are supposed to activate their cameras when they are responding to all calls and during all law enforcement-related encounters, and it allows them to turn it off when the encounter is over or further recording is unlikely to garner evidence. 

Guest speaker Matt Ehling from the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information raised a concern that the proposed policy could be an invasion of privacy in residents’ homes. He said that in almost all circumstances, officers need to have a resident’s consent before entering a home, and that they should also gain consent before recording in a home.

Mayor Nora Slawik pointed out that sometimes it can be difficult to gain consent from someone who may be intoxicated or who may not be fluent in English. Schnell added that the situation is further complicated if one resident in a home gives permission, but another resident in the same home does not. 

Another guest speaker, Ben Feist from the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while his organization agrees with the issue of privacy in the home that Ehling brought up, the ACLU prefers residents be asked if they would like to opt-out of being recorded rather than the officer being required to gain permission to record.

“Most of my concern really does come down to the amount of discretion that officers are allowed,” Feist said.

Feist added that Maplewood’s proposed policy offers some direction for officers regarding when to record and when to turn the camera off, but he said that he thinks there is not enough direction, which could result in officers recording only part of the incident, which Feist referred to as “officers being able to edit their own videos on the fly.”

Feist also pointed out that if residents don’t know they are being recorded, how would they know to exercise their right to obtain a copy. He said that the types of body-worn cameras that he has seen do not have any red blinking lights, so it may not be obvious to residents and they are unlikely to simply assume they are being recorded.

 

Footage viewing and retention

Schnell explained that the obtained footage is confidential during an active investigation, but otherwise private. The exceptions to that include instances when a firearm is discharged, where there was an incident that included use of force involving substantial bodily harm, if the data subject chooses to make the footage public, as part of the data documenting final disposition of discipline or as a court order.

Ehling did commend the Maplewood Police Department on the proposed option for residents to be able to obtain a copy of a video they are in, or provide notarized permission for someone else to obtain a copy. Ehling also appreciated that any material an employee views will be tracked and logged. 

The option to view the footage is limited by the proposed policy to only a few individuals including the officer who shot the footage, and that officer is allowed to view the footage to help him or her prepare the police report of the incident, unless the incident caused “great bodily harm” or death to a person.

Feist shared his organization’s belief that officers involved in cases of even “substantial bodily harm” not be allowed to watch the footage before reporting on it, as those instances are still even more severe than use of a Taser stun gun.

Minnesota statute identifies “substantial bodily harm” as “bodily injury which involves a temporary but substantial disfigurement, or which causes temporary but substantial loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ or which causes a fracture of any bodily member.”

Minnesota statute identifies “great bodily harm” as “bodily injury which creates a high probability of death, or which causes serious permanent disfigurement, or which causes permanent or protracted loss of impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ or other serious bodily harm.”

Schnell said that by allowing the officers in most instances to view the video before writing their reports, it allows the officer to report more accurately and capture exact quotes. He added that audio recording devices have been used for a number of years to take statements that are used later in the reports. 

The reason for not allowing the footage to be viewed in cases of “great bodily harm” is so that the officer’s voluntary statement is from the perspective of a “reasonable officer in the field” and not the hindsight provided by re-watching the incident unfold, according to Schnell.

Guest speaker Yusef Mgeni from the St. Paul chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People agreed with the previous speakers regarding privacy in the home. But he felt that police should not be able to view any footage before reporting on it because residents involved in the incident would not be allowed this privilege before making a statement and the camera captures only one angle of footage which can be misleading and can encourage the officer to unintentionally sway his or her report in a different way than his or her memory may have. Mgeni did add that officers should be able to amend their statements after viewing the footage if it becomes necessary.

Maplewood’s draft policy states that non-incident data would be held for 90 days, and criminal data would be held for seven years. 

Mgeni pointed out that since the digital storage space Maplewood pays for is unlimited, the city should hold non-incident data for one year because that is the statutory limit for human rights complaints to be filed in Minnesota. 

Mgeni added that it could be financially viable for Maplewood to do this because people don’t tend to file a costly lawsuit if they know there is evidence available that may disprove their claim.

Schnell noted the point that Mgeni made, but he added that keeping data longer than needed on people who are not being actively investigated could also be problematic. 

In general, residents who spoke during the public comment period of the city council meeting seemed to agree with the three guest speakers, and shared their wishes for policies that offered more specific guidelines for police officers.

“You must commit to a narrow set of well defined policies for which cameras and their audio video footage may be used,” Mgeni said.

“Body cameras should be able to be a positive tool,” Feist added.

 

Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or akinney@lillienews.com.

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