Trust of the police and the justice system when it comes to people of color is low. So it may be surprising that the Minneapolis NAACP is against a bill in the Minnesota legislature that would pave the way for more cities to equip their police with “body cams” that could show conclusively if an officer took inappropriate action.
The problem is the bill allows police to block public access to the video, which defeats the purpose of providing more transparency and trust.
“I’m surprised that this one-sided bill has made it so far in our legislature,” Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds told Minnesota House lawmakers considering the bill. “The issue of body cameras is such a sensitive one in the state of Minnesota and across the nation.”
When Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark, the officers were not equipped with “body cams” – cameras that would record what they were doing. So when it came to deciding whether to charge the officers in Clark’s death, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman had to rely on police records, conflicting witness accounts and security cam videos that didn’t show much of what happened. Freeman said there wasn’t enough evidence there to charge the officers.
“Obviously if the officers had been wearing body cameras, we would know exactly what happened,” says Levy-Pounds who was advocating for the defeat of the body camera law. She says laws on body cams need to strike the right balance between privacy, transparency and accountability and the bill under consideration “weighs too heavily in favor of the perspective of law enforcement at a time in which trust by the African American community and other communities of color in law enforcement is at an all-time low.”
How the proposed law favors police over the public
The bill would allow officers to review body cam video before they submit reports or make statements about any incident. “That does not reinforce the notion of transparency when an officer has a chance to review information prior to making some type of official statement. The public doesn’t have such an opportunity if they’re alleging they were abused in some way by police officers,” says Levy-Pounds
Public access to the video would be limited. Only video shot on public property when there is police use of force that results in “substantial bodily harm” would be available to the public. “That’s a very high threshold,” says Levy-Pounds who gets many complaints from the public about police that don’t involve substantial bodily harm, but she those actions are “just as dangerous in terms of how people are being treated or slammed to the ground or choked.”
The also allows a person in the video to request that it be made public, provided that images of other citizens who did not want to be seen are removed or obscured.
The bill also gives local police discretion in setting their own policies on when the cameras will be on and if someone needs to give consent to be recorded. “That needs to be a matter of state law,” says Levy-Pounds.
Rep. Brian Johnson disagreed that the bill gave police officers too much protection. He said the public was quick to litigate against officers. “We’ve had some great officers have their careers destroyed because of false accusations.”
The City of Minneapolis has spent $20 million dollars to settle those lawsuits. Johnson said thats because it was “cheaper than fighting it.”
“We need this bill and we need this bill now because it not only protects the public but it protects the officer from frivolous lawsuits,” added Johnson.
Several police departments have already added body cams. Minneapolis has completed a pilot program and is working on putting them on more officers. Other cities are considering doing the same. However they’ve been hesitant to do so because without a change in the law the video from the cameras is subject to the Minnesota data practices act which would make much of it public.
Rep. John Lesch said the body cam language has been in the works for at least four years and during that time law enforcement has had a big say in how the proposed body cam law has been written. He agreed it was not “balanced.” He said that’s because civilian activist groups have said they want police body cams, but until recently were not aware of how the law was going to be written. He told Levy-Pounds to “really let people know that if they want a balanced solution they need to weigh in more because it really hasn’t happened that much in the years that we’ve been working on issues like this.”
Despite the NAACP opposition, the bill passed the committee 11 to 2 and goes next to the public safety committee and then to House floor for a vote.