Woodbury body cam policy under scrutiny from ACLU

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After a month of taking public feedback on its police body camera program, the Woodbury Police Department will begin testing cameras in March.

Officials last month unveiled a draft of the Woodbury Police Department's body camera policy, which includes rules about when officers, staff and the public can view footage, as well as when officers are required to record certain events.

The preliminary policy has drawn some scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union-Minnesota, who pointed out several objections to several items in Woodbury's drafted policy.

During a Jan. 18 Woodbury City Council meeting, officials said they plan to review and weigh the public's comments, including those from the ACLU.

In a letter to the city, the ACLU is asking the city to forbid officers from viewing camera footage for report writing, a concern that Gov. Mark Dayton threatened to veto amid heated debates regarding body camera legislation last year.

"Allowing officers to view body camera footage before writing reports could undermine the legitimacy of their investigations," the letter read. "This is especially problematic when there are complaints of excessive use of force and in any officer-involved shootings."

The ACLU is also asking Woodbury to limit officers' discretion by requiring police to activate their cameras during every encounter with a member of the public.

ACLU Statement on Draft Body Camera Policy - Woodbury Police Department 

The city's draft policy requires officers to record during a handful of circumstances, including when a person becomes adversarial or asks to be recorded, arrests, searches and pursuits.

Woodbury Public Safety Director and Police Chief Lee Vague has said officers in his department have expressed strong support for body cameras, but some still wish the policy included specific language of when they should record.

At a Jan. 18 council meeting, public information officer Michelle Okada said the policy will likely narrow the scope of when officers should record during the pilot phase.

"They want to know when they have to turn it on, and when they should turn it off," she said. "That's really something we've been challenged with: eliminating some of that discretion for the public and our officers, so they know what's expected of them."

Vague said the department will take the ACLU and other comments into account. But some requests, he said, such as officers notifying people every time they are recorded, are impractical.

"We want to make sure our officers are able to focus on their job," Vague said.

Some who commented Wednesday and in written response to the city mainly touched on privacy concerns.

Last year, the Minnesota Legislature passed laws making police footage nonpublic, except in cases involving force or when an officer discharges a weapon. The footage in such instances would be made public following an investigation.

People can also request footage if they are filmed or recorded, but the footage would be removed if more than one person is filmed and they do not consent to its release.

Those laws took effect in August 2016.

Vague said Woodbury Public Safety and a number of other law enforcement agencies in Minnesota were waiting for the lawmakers to define the handling of body cameras.

The Woodbury City Council approved funding for the police department to purchase cameras for different officers to wear during the pilot program. The city expects to evaluate next summer before all Woodbury officers begin wearing body cameras within the next year.

At more than $10,000, the city plans to buy eight WatchGuard body cameras and other equipment for the pilot phase. The cameras work with the Woodbury squad car cameras and automatically start filming when other officers are recording nearby.

Officials have estimated the total cost of the project would be $165,000, with a large part of the costs coming from storing and managing the data.

The department will meet again with the city council to discuss the pilot program and ask them to fund the full program.

Although the comment period regarding the pilot program has closed, Okada said the department is still interested in public feedback, which can be submitted via email to police@woodburymn.gov.