Minnesota Cities Magazine

Letter of the Law: Body-Worn Cameras and the Data Practices Act

By Rachel Carlson
Many cities around the nation are now considering the idea of having their police officers wear small video cameras. The body-worn camera is designed to capture video from the officer’s perspective. The cameras weigh 108 grams (or nearly 4 ounces) and can be hooked to a hat, collar, shoulder, or specially designed sunglasses. Unlike the static squad car camera, this device moves with the officer and sees what he or she sees.

In the past five years, Los Angeles, Cleveland, JA15bodycamCharlotte, and Fort Worth are some of the larger cities nationally that have deployed the cameras. Some studies have preliminarily shown that the cameras appear to significantly lower complaints against officers. Some groups believe that the body-worn cameras create greater transparency from law enforcement agencies. Other groups believe the cameras increase public accountability and minimize risk to officers.

No current state or federal law requires the use of body-worn cameras. If your city council is considering body cameras, it should of course carefully weigh the social, political, and economic factors relevant to your community. The small device carries with it very large legal concerns and questions. Perhaps the most substantial of these concerns is the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA).

Data practices considerations
The MGDPA places serious responsibilities on city governments to provide transparency to the public. With a few important exceptions, citizens have a right to view most of the data maintained by a city. At the same time, the MGDPA requires cities to protect the privacy of the citizens, whose private or confidential data the city maintains. There are civil (and in rare cases criminal) consequences for cities that release private or confidential non-public data.

Are images captured by body-worn cameras subject to the MGDPA? Yes, just like any other photos, these digital images are subject to the MGDPA. The MGDPA defines data as “all data collected, created, received, maintained, or disseminated” by a covered governmental entity “regardless of physical form, storage media, or conditions of use.”

This broad definition includes paper files at city hall, as well as computerized files, emails, photographs, charts, maps, video recordings, audio recordings—even handwritten notes and working documents—and images from body-worn cameras. As a result, before a city purchases and deploys body-worn cameras, it must carefully weigh and consider the requirements of the MGDPA.

Public or private data?
Cities should be aware that, potentially, video from a body-worn camera could have a mix of both public and private data. For example, a response to a burglary call may include images of juveniles who live in the home.

This would be private data.

When data is mixed, the MGDPA requires redaction of the private data and release of the remaining public data. There is no easy way to redact digital images from the body-worn cameras. Redaction may require the city to “blur” the images of some people in the video and mute the audio. A city using body cameras will need to contemplate having trained people available to do this work. Under the MGDPA, the city may not charge the person requesting the data for the cost of redaction. This could be expensive as, in some cases in other states, cities have received requests for an entire days’ worth of data.

Storage of data
To meet the requirements of the MGDPA, cities will have to invest in an electronic file maintenance and storage system. Data should be stored in an organized way that allows data requests to be fulfilled with relative ease in a matter of days.

The Minnesota Records Retention Act and the Minnesota Records Retention Schedule will be helpful guides to the city in determining their storage needs and policies. Cities should not underestimate the burdens of data storage—whether on city hardware or in the cloud.

Recording life’s most stressful moments
Finally, cities should also be aware that the purpose of the MGDPA is to promote transparency in government.

Body-worn cameras will record images of the interior of people’s homes, images containing nudity, and images of people’s most stressful life moments. The MGDPA requires that many of these images be made available to any member of the public who files a data practices request.

The police may temporarily classify some data as non-public investigative data. However, once the investigation closes or the evidence is admitted into court, even this data will become public. As a result, a city should adopt a carefully thought-out policy providing officer guidance on balancing personal privacy, investigative needs, and officer safety.

Rachel Carlson is loss control manager with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. Contact: rcarlson@lmc.org or (651) 281-1210.

Read the July-August 2015 issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine

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