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Our View: Embrace body cams, public access to what they record

From the editorial: "Privacy must be protected, but so, too, must the public's right to know."

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John Cole / Cagle Cartoons

Just seven short years ago, Duluth was considered a national “leader in policing,” as then-Chief Gordon Ramsay stated, for outfitting officers with body-worn cameras.

Only about a third of law-enforcement agencies were using cameras then to record their interactions with the public, a percentage, we’re happy to report, that jumped to more than half within only three years.

The percentage continues to grow, and in 2022 it is expected to include the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office. Last week, the St. Louis County Board voted to spend $790,000 to buy 110 cameras for deputies, a move research has shown improves public trust in policing while helping to hold law enforcement accountable.

The public can take advantage of an opportunity to comment over the next 30 days on the sheriff’s department’s draft policy for the cameras. Go to stlouiscountymn.gov/departments-a-z/sheriff .

“I believe this is a worthwhile investment,” County Sheriff Ross Litman said in a commentary for the News Tribune that’s scheduled to be published over the holidays. “The frequency of (use-of-deadly-force) events and the ever-increasing dangerous nature of our work were major determining factors in my decision to move forward.”

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With body cameras, the chance of the truth being known greatly increases following public interactions with police and deputies that escalate. Nasty rumors and misinformed anger can be headed off before boiling over then, and bad actors in uniform can be more easily held accountable. With video footage, everyone can see what happened rather than being left to embrace a version of the truth that fits their bias.

For one city in California, the presence of body cameras reduced complaints against police by 90%, as the Chicago Tribune reported in an editorial in 2014. “Police cameras, you see, have a way of altering the behavior of both cops and civilians. Both tend to behave better when they know there will be a video record of what they do,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote. “Police are less likely to brutalize citizens, and citizens are less likely to make false accusations of abuse."

Win-win.

But the public’s right to access what the cameras record has been far less of a slam dunk. In Minnesota, the Legislature debated it in 2018. “But the result was pretty unsatisfactory,” as Mark Anfinson, a renowned legal expert in Minnesota on matters of public access, told the News Tribune Opinion page this month. He called the state’s body camera access rules “one of the most convoluted portions” of the state’s Data Practices Act — “which is saying something,” he said.

While government data is generally, appropriately, and correctly considered open to the public — because government officials are doing the public’s business — police body-camera footage is private by default under Minnesota law. That’s because law enforcement routinely go into private places like homes, schools, or hospitals and investigate rather-sensitive wrongdoing, including domestic violence, sexual assault, mental health crises, and crimes committed by juveniles. Exceptions that allow body-cam footage to be made public include “the discharge of a firearm by a peace officer in the course of duty” and someone in the video requesting it be made public.

It’s a tricky balance. Privacy must be protected, but so, too, must the public's right to know.

With more law enforcement officers outfitted with camera, the public’s right to know the truth — for better or for worse — is enhanced and improved. And the truth is important enough for the technology to be embraced. Like Duluth did. And like the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office is now doing.

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