Cameras in the courts pilot project expands

Nov 30, 2015 | No Comments

A pilot project allowing cameras in some criminal court hearings has begun in Minnesota district courts.

The project that began Nov. 10 is limited to hearings after a defendant is convicted in certain types of cases. Cameras aren’t allowed when a jury is present, and they’re excluded from juvenile proceedings or those involving domestic violence or sex crimes. They also aren’t allowed in specialized courts for drug, mental health, veteran and DWI cases.

The project expands a similar one that allowed cameras at civil case hearings.

The Minnesota Supreme Court decided in August to allow expanded access of media camera and audio recordings of criminal proceedings as part of a pilot project. Formerly, all parties to a case had to consent before recordings were allowed, leading to few cases where cameras were permitted.

Under the expanded pilot program, victims testifying as part of sentencing or other post-verdict proceedings must give consent to be recorded.

News organizations and the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information have tried for years to get cameras and other devices into courtrooms by loosening a 1974 prohibition. Supreme Court justices said in their order that they were trying to address concerns of intrusive or prejudicial coverage while bringing about confidence in the judicial system’s fairness.

After the two-year pilot allowed cameras in certain civil proceedings, The Minnesota Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on General Rules of Practice reported, among its conclusions:

“The committee is not aware of any problems or complaints caused by the use of cameras or audio recording equipment in court proceedings during the pilot period.

“Coverage of the proceedings has not, to the committee’s knowledge, generated any known prejudice to any of the parties.”

MNCOGI believes that further opening Minnesota courts to audio and video coverage will foster community understanding and present citizens with a positive experience of what goes on in their courtrooms.

MNCOGI will post on its website links to news reports that include camera coverage of court proceedings.

These are some of the reports:

Cameras Flick On In Minnesota’s Criminal Courtrooms

McKinney sentenced in Wylie murder

Craigslist Swindler Who Cost Investors $330K Sentenced To Prison

Eden Prairie Woman Found Guilty Of Embezzling $1.3M

Man Gets 12 Years In Death Of Former Roommate

Cameras make debut in Duluth courtroom

Rosemount Woman Gets 15 Years For Aiding Anarae Schunk’s Death

Emotional Outbursts Follow Alexandria Woman’s Murder Sentencing

Status of data in the Jamar Clark investigation

Nov 20, 2015 | No Comments

As has been widely reported in the local press, Twin Cities resident Jamar Clark was shot during an encounter with police in the early hours of November 15, 2015, and later died from that gunshot wound.  Controversy over the incident sparked demonstrations outside of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fourth Precinct headquarters, and led to a protest-related shut-down of Interstate 94.

At present, both the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are conducting investigations into the shooting.  Much discussion in the press has focused on questions of when investigative data will be available to the public, in order to provide a clear picture of the incident.  MNCOGI presents the following summary of the status of such data:

Criminal investigative data:  When data gathered by police becomes part of an active criminal investigation, it becomes “confidential” or “protected nonpublic” data, depending on whether the data pertains to an individual or not.  While data is classified in this way, it cannot be shared with either the subject of the data, or with members of the public who ask for it.  This data classification extends to any video of the incident obtained by the police, with the exception of certain arrest or incident data.  After an investigation is closed, the “not public” data reverts to a public status, with certain exceptions.

Arrest data:  Even after a criminal investigation has been opened, certain data still remains public, even though other, related data gets converted into various forms of “not public” data.  Data that is public “at all times” includes certain arrest data, including data documenting whether any weapons were used by police, or whether there was any resistance encountered by police.  If this data exists in the form of a video recording, any portion of the recording that documents such details is public data.  In the Jamar Clark case, the BCA has indicated that it holds certain video of the incident.

Incident data:  Like arrest data, certain law enforcement “incident” data is always public, even after a criminal investigation has been opened.  Such data includes the date, time, and place of the police action, police report numbers, and other factual information (such as the use of weapons) similar to the “arrest data” discussed above.

Names of officers:  The names of the officers involved in the shooting were released on November 18th, several days after the incident occurred.  MNCOGI notes that the names of officers involved in any arrest or law enforcement incident are public “at all times” under Minnesota law.  This is true even if other data connected to an arrest or incident has been converted into criminal investigative data.

Public benefit data:  The law enforcement section of the Data Practices Act has a little-used provision that deals with “public benefit data.”  That section states that even when certain data is being maintained as “not public” criminal investigative data, police agencies can choose to release particular data to the public if the release would “aid with the law enforcement process, promote public safety, or dispel widespread rumor or unrest.”

Federal criminal investigative data:  Any Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) data related to the Clark case that has been transferred to the FBI will have its own classification under federal law.  Exemption 7(a) of the federal Freedom of Information Act prohibits the release of data on ongoing criminal investigations.  Federal law does not contain provisions that make some law enforcement data (such as certain arrest data) public during an investigation, as Minnesota law does.  To obtain arrest data related to the Clark case, it would be necessary to request it from the MPD or the BCA – not the FBI.

MNCOGI Supports Call For Legislative Openness and Transparency

Nov 17, 2015 | No Comments

Minnesota recently received a grade of D- from the Center for Public Integrity for its lack of transparency and openness in state government. In response, Minnesota House Minority Leader Paul Thissen has called for much needed and long overdue reforms. MNCOGI supports such reforms, and encourages Rep. Thissen and other legislative leaders to strengthen the public’s right to know.

The Center for Public Integrity and Rep. Thissen were both highly critical of a process where closed door meetings produced agreements and bills that were rushed to a vote before lawmakers knew what was in them.  Rep. Thissen said that the “chaotic conclusion” of the 2015 session was a “mockery of legislative process,” and called for reform legislation that would provide lawmakers and the public at least 24 hours to review any proposed legislation.

MNCOGI believes that this proposal is a good first step, but also believes that the legislature and the governor should do more.  Meetings where deals are being cut should be open to the public.  After all, it is the public’s business that is being done, and taxpayers’ money that is being spent.

Voters cannot hold their lawmakers accountable if they are kept in the dark, and the deal making is secret.  A little sunshine would go a long way to restoring Minnesota’s reputation for clean government.

If lawmakers cannot see their way clear to opening the doors, they should at least require that the closed meetings be recorded, and the recordings be made public after the legislation is adopted. That would provide the transparency the public needs in order to hold its elected officials accountable.

Back in the 1970s, the Minnesota Legislature passed good-government legislation called the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.  The law applied to almost all levels of Minnesota Government.  Counties, cities, school districts, and more were included, but courts and the Minnesota Legislature were excluded. Rep Thissen thinks it’s time to see if the law should be extended to the legislature. MNCOGI believes that this is a sound suggestion, and pledges its support to craft appropriate legislation.

2015 legislative session round-up

May 24, 2015 | No Comments

James Shiffer (of the Star Tribune’s “Full Disclosure” column, as well as the MNCOGI board) uses his Sunday column to list the open government “wins” of the 2015 legislative session.  These include increased transparency measures for police surveillance equipment, as well as the rejection of bills that would have made certain body camera data, birth record data, and police incident data “not public.”  MNCOGI testified on all of these issues over the course of the session.  We will soon be posting our 2015 testimony and realted documentation in the “policy” section of our blog.  We use that portion of our site as a year-by-year archive of transparency issues that have arisen at the capitol.

MNCOGI notes that the legislative actions highlighed above were due to bi-partisan support from key, transparency-minded legislators, including Reps. Peggy Scott and John Lesch, as well as Senators Branden Petersen, Warren Limmer, Scott Dibble, and many others in both houses.  Our thanks go out to all who have supported the cause of government transparency in Minnesota.

The public needs to fully understand the debate over body camera policy

Apr 28, 2015 | No Comments

On April 27th, a letter from MNCOGI’s Gary Hill about police body camera data ran in the Star Tribune newspaper. Find the link here.  The text is below.

The public needs to fully understand the debate over body camera policy

Body-worn police cameras are being used more and more frequently, and legislators are currently grappling with how to classify “body cam” data in order to determine what should be public or private.

The debate over body camera policy has become needlessly complicated because some policy advocates are seeking legislative action without a comprehensive understanding of the status of body camera video under existing law.

For instance, the Coalition for Battered Women recently urged the Legislature to declare nearly all body cam data off-limits to the public, saying secrecy is needed to protect the privacy of victims of sexual assault. Police unions also have cited crime victims in arguing for broad restrictions on public access to body cam data. But much data — including video recordings — on victims of sexual assault or other crimes are private under existing state law.

Closing off public access to most body camera data is unnecessary to protect victim privacy, and would have the effect of hiding video related to police accountability. Controversies over recent shootings by law enforcement underscore the need for better documentation of police response, and body cameras are seen as a way to do so. But the cameras’ potential will never be realized if the public is barred from viewing the video.

MNCOGI opposes changes to birth record data

Apr 22, 2015 | No Comments

The Minnesota Senate is on the verge of approving a change to long-public birth record information.  A provision in the HHS omnibus bill would change address information on birth records to a “private” data status, from its currently “public” status under Minnesota law.  While the bill contains an exception for medical research, it would close off data to historical researchers, genealogists, and most other citizen requesters.

MNCOGI and the Minnesota Pro chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists recently co-signed a statement in opposition to this change – found below – and at the SPJ web site.


The Minnesota Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) oppose a provision of the Senate HHS Omnibus bill relating to the classification of birth record data. In particular, we oppose language (found in lines 217.24, 244.5-244.20, and 244.14) that would deprive the public of access to long-standing public information regarding birth records. For decades, such information has been useful to a wide range of Minnesotans for historical research, genealogy, and other lawful purposes.

By authorizing the release of birth record data only to limited sub-sets of individuals, such as “persons performing medical research,” these provisions of the omnibus bill advance the notion that data should be selectively released to the public based on the type of individual who requests it. This is at odds with the history of the Minnesota Data Practices Act, which does not discriminate between data requesters once government data has been classified as “public.” Such limitations could set a negative precedent for the subsequent classification of a wide variety of data in Minnesota. We urge the committee to reject proposed changes that would constrain public access to long-standing public information.

Chris Newmarker (President, Minnesota SPJ)
Gary Hill (Chair, MNCOGI)






MNCOGI Statement on Minneapolis Open Data Portal

Jan 12, 2015 | No Comments

One month ago, Minnesota’s largest city launched one of the state’s first general purpose open data portals. MNCOGI applauds the City of Minneapolis for this step in its journey toward transparency and citizen accessibility. MNCOGI also recognizes this opportunity to briefly evaluate the success of the launch of Minneapolis’ open data portal – both for the benefit of future iterations of the Minneapolis open data portal, and for the benefit of any other municipality that is considering an open data policy or portal.

The principal criterion to consider when evaluating the implementation of an open data policy – including Minneapolis’ open data portal – is the extent to which the policy’s implementation enables residents to access and use public government data. In applying this criterion to the open data portal, we will apply this criterion to several aspects of the portal, namely:

  • Portal Usability: Minneapolis’ open data portal includes several features that enable residents to access and use government data, including dataset categorization, search, online data viewing in tabular and several graph formats, sorting and filtering of datasets, subscription to notification of dataset changes, and the ability to embed graphs in other websites. However, as has been noted by others, portions of the open data portal were unusable at the launch of the open data portal due to technical problems, which severely prevented users from accessing and using some datasets.
  • Available Data: At launch, Minneapolis’ open data portal contained a respectable set of 35 data sets, including foundational datasets (administrative boundaries, street centerlines, locations of police & fire stations), datasets concerning city planning, city incident data (police incidents since 2010, reported and confirmed fires since 2012, 311 reports since 2010), NCR funding and contracts, air quality data, and more.
  • Documentation of Data: Most of the above datasets contain little to no documentation concerning the nature of the dataset, the meanings of columns and values, or the means by which the data was collected. In the absence of this documentation, users will often lack context required to understand the meaning of data, which significantly reduces the ability of residents to use the available datasets.
  • Data License: As noted on every page of the Minneapolis open data portal, all datasets on the portal carry a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. By using a Creative Commons license to clarify and remind residents of their legal rights related to government data, the City is supporting the ability of residents to use available datasets to engage in public dialog and build tools using this data.
  • Programmable Access: Minneapolis’ open data portal provides an Application Programmer Interface (API) for available datasets that, while complicated, is extensively documented. The availability of this API enables individuals and organizations to access and use available datasets for novel purposes, presentations, and applications.

The launch of Minneapolis’ open data portal represents a snapshot in the ever changing implementation of Minneapolis’ open data policy. Thus, it is important to also apply the above criterion to the City’s ability to change, and hopefully improve, it’s open data portal. For example, it is notable that while the open data portal experienced serious technical problems at its launch, the City was able to quickly fix these problems.

The culture change that is underway at the City of Minneapolis is commendable, but far from complete. Missing documentation is proof of the incomplete change, as the various city departments that steward the available datasets are also responsible for documenting those datasets, but have not yet prioritized that responsibility. However, the fact that many departments have chosen to actively participate in the open data policy does instill confidence that this culture change will continue, that more open data will be published, and that residents of Minneapolis will continue to gain more access and understanding of their municipal government.

MNCOGI supports cameras in courts

Nov 24, 2014 | No Comments

The Minnesota Supreme Court will consider expanding a pilot program to allow audio and video coverage of criminal court proceedings after a guilty plea or verdict is entered. This follows a two-year pilot that allowed cameras at civil court proceedings.

The high court will hold a hearing on the program December 16. MNCOGI submitted a statement urging the court to accept a committee’s recommendation to expand the pilot program:

Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI)
Cameras in the Courts
Prepared by Hal Davis, MNCOGI board member

Minnesota Supreme Court
December 16, 2014

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI) commends the Minnesota Supreme Court for continuing to move forward in allowing Minnesotans to see their court system in action. The coalition commends the Court for its extensive efforts and hard work in striving to provide open access to judicial proceedings as we transition to the electronic age.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1947 decision (Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367, 374), said: “A trial is a public event. What transpires in the courtroom is public property.” In 1981, in Chandler v. Florida (449 U.S. 560), the Court ruled that states could experiment with television coverage of criminal trials. The Court found that state experimentation with “evolving technology” in the courtroom, as long as it does not infringe on “fundamental guarantees” of the accused, is consistent with the Constitution.

The public has a right to observe proceedings in open court. “To work effectively, it is important that the society’s criminal process satisfy the appearance of justice, and the appearance of justice can best be provided by allowing people to observe it.” Richmond Newspapers, Inc., v. Virginia, 448 U.S. at 571-572 (1980).

MNCOGI commends the Advisory Committee on Rules of Criminal Procedure for proposing a pilot program to allow cameras in “criminal proceeding[s] occurring after a guilty plea has been tendered or a guilty verdict has been reached.” Rule 4.02(d). We are pleased by the recommendation that “Absent good cause, the trial judge must grant a media request for audio and video coverage of proceedings governed by the pilot,” by the presumption favoring coverage, and by the recommendation that the pilot should be carried out statewide.

This recommendation comes after a two-year pilot allowed cameras in certain civil proceedings. The Advisory Committee on General Rules of Practice reported, among its conclusions:

“The committee is not aware of any problems or complaints caused by the use of cameras or audio recording equipment in court proceedings during the pilot period.

“Coverage of the proceedings has not, to the committee’s knowledge, generated any known prejudice to any of the parties.”

MNCOGI is appreciative of the Advisory Committee’s commitment to further open criminal proceedings to video and audio coverage, and our organization looks forward to additional steps in this area. After more than 10 years of consideration, we believe no problems will arise. Adequate safeguards are in place to protect the participants in the process and the decorum of the court. Problems that have been anticipated have not materialized. We believe that will continue to be the case.

In the State of Ohio, for instance, video is now the official record. The cameras are positioned all over the courtroom, except toward the jury box, and microphones are everywhere but the spectator area. DVDs are the public record, available for $2.25, and can hold a day-long hearing. The judges say that the fears that people would “play to the camera” have not come to pass. The cameras are so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. Everyone knows they are there and no one thinks about them.

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information believes that a similar outcome will ensue in this state. Further opening Minnesota courts to audio and video coverage will foster community understanding and present citizens with a positive experience of what goes on in their courtrooms.

MNCOGI’s proposed “body cam” data framework, presented at the October 10th Data Practices Commission meeting

Oct 13, 2014 | No Comments


Overview of classification and operational issues


Mobile “body cam” systems are compact, camera/recording or camera/transmission devices that can be attached to clothing, glasses, or other worn garments or accessories.

Police in several Minnesota municipalities – including Duluth – have adopted such devices for use by their police departments.  At present, the city of Minneapolis is on the cusp of a body cam pilot program to help develop protocols for larger-scale implementation. The cameras are largely being adopted to enable the capture of video documentation to help resolve disputes over police conduct and/or use of force incidents.

Two types of commercially available body cam systems are being used by law enforcement agencies:

  1. Systems that record to the worn device when triggered by a user;

2.  Systems that are connected to a remote server through wireless connectivity, and record on a continuous basis.

Current data classification

At present, information gathered by police body cams is generally treated as presumptively “public” data under Chapter 13.  One exception to this public presumption involves the use of body cam data in active criminal investigations.  When such an investigation is opened, body cam data pertinent to the matter can be maintained as “not public” data for the duration of the active investigation, after which it reverts to its former, public status.  This is similar to the way that squad car video is currently treated.

Issues raised by body cam data

Body cam video holds the possibility of clarifying questions about police use of force incidents, creating accountability for the public. Body cam data may also help to prevent unfounded claims of police misconduct from being sustained.  At the same time, the mobility and pervasiveness of the video recording offered by body cams raises questions around privacy that complicate the discussion over camera operation and data classification.  For instance:

  1. Should video recorded in public areas and video recorded in private domiciles or workplaces be classified in the same way?
  1. Should police have to provide notice to persons they encounter that body cams are in operation?  In what circumstances would such notice be appropriate?
  1. Would continuous transmission of body cam data over wireless networks be susceptible to hacking or interception, and therefore trigger invasions of privacy or breaches of potentially sensitive data?
  1. Would some forms of body cam technology raise more difficult classification, use, or privacy questions than others?

MNCOGI’s proposed framework

MNCOGI continues to explore issues surrounding police body cam data, but offers the following framework to help guide the discussion surrounding the implementation of the technology, and the classification of the resulting data.

  1. Video should be presumptively public; arrest video public “at all times”.

A public classification for body cam data offers oversight benefits to the public. Public availability of the data serves the classic oversight purpose of documenting the conduct of public officials for later review.

Public access to body cam data also permits the public to review how and where the government is collecting video material. Access to the data allows the public a means of measuring the appropriateness of video collection and use.

MNCOGI generally urges a “public” classification for body cam data, with most data remaining presumptively public, and other data expressly classified as being public “at all times” under Minn. Stat. 13.82, Subd. 2. As the primary purpose of gathering the video is to provide transparent documentation of the actions of officers, some form of public status would be the best match for the data.

Actions that are most relevant to an oversight purpose should be public at all times – arrest data, for instance. Currently, Minn. Stat. 13.82 Subd. 2 includes a specific list of types of data relevant to arrests that are always public, and thus not subject to being withheld as criminal investigative data at any point. Body cam documentation of arrests should be added to that list, or otherwise specified elsewhere in Minn. Stat. 13.82. Other, specific forms of video recording might also be considered for classification as being public “at all times” under Minn. Stat. 13.82.

Other body cam data could remain unclassified, and thus presumptively public data.

  1. Privacy should be addressed through the regulation of video collection.

While body cam data could play a potentially positive oversight role, it could also greatly expand the ability of police to create a long-term surveillance record of a community, raising privacy and accountability concerns.  Much like license plate reader (LPR) technology, long-term retention of indiscriminate body cam data could vest the government with an archive of the movements and associations or individuals, or even the interiors layouts of locations that police visit for calls for service and other incidents.

Continuous, indiscriminate recording could also raise questions about whether individuals who might require police attention for welfare checks or similar services would be reluctant to call, due to hesitations about having their interactions recorded.

Such privacy issues could be addressed through a statutory scheme under which certain body cam data would be classified as “public”, while other data would be classified as “private”. However, MNCOGI believes that this matter would be better addressed through the regulation of camera use, rather than by creating multiple categories of private body cam data.

Departmental rules, municipal ordinances, or state laws could be written to address when, where, or how body cam data could be collected in order to address questions of privacy. For instance, are there situations in which notice should be required prior to recording? Welfare checks could be one set of circumstances. The recordings of arrests, on the other hand, could be regulated so as not require such notice.

The regulation of body cam recording would also ensure that the technology is used for a narrow, oversight purpose, without expanding into a more broad-based video surveillance platform.

MNCOGI letter in support of, and recommendations for, Minneapolis open data policy

Aug 4, 2014 | No Comments

On July 14th, MNCOGI sent the following letter to Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson concerning the then draft Open Data Policy. This letter served as both a show of support for the issue of open data in Minneapolis, and a set of recommended changes to the draft policy in order to better align the Open Data Policy with the Minnesota Data Practices Act and federal data laws.

On July 30th, the Minneapolis City Council adopted an amended version of this Open Data Policy.

The following letter is also available for download as a PDF.

Gary Hill
Board Chair
Minnesota Coalition on Government Information

July 14th, 2014

Council Member Andrew Johnson
350 South 5th Street
Room 307
Minneapolis, MN 55415

Dear Council Member Johnson,

I am writing to you on behalf of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), a non-profit organization dedicated to government transparency and public access to information. Our members support the aims and intentions of the city’s proposed “Open Data” policy, and we wish Minneapolis success in moving ahead with its initiative.

Bill Bushey (a MNCOGI board member who has been closely involved in discussions regarding the proposed policy) has shared a draft with our members for the purposes of gathering feedback. MNCOGI has evaluated the draft, and offers the following general comments:

1. Overall, we would urge that the draft language be modified in certain places to more closely align with terminology used in Chapter 13 of the Minnesota Statutes. This should be done in order to avoid any interpretive issues related to the implementation of the Open Data Policy within the general framework of the Data Practices Act.

For instance, the language within the “Department Responsibilities” section that describes “private” data should be modified to conform to the terminology of Chapter 13. Instead of labeling such data as simply “private,” it should be labeled as either “not public” data, or alternately, “private data on individuals, nonpublic data, or protected nonpublic data.” Please also note that “administrative cost concerns” are not permissible reasons to make data “not public” under Chapter 13.

2. We would also urge that the Open Data Policy clearly articulate the role of the Data Practices Responsible Authority (RA) within the work-flow structure of the Open Data initiative, due to the RA’s key role in administering data access under Chapter 13. In MNCOGI’s opinion, all city personnel responsible for implementing the Open Data Policy should be under the purview of the RA.

3. Finally, we would urge the city to evaluate potential liability issues related to unintentional disclosures of data classified as “not public” under state or federal law. This would be a “best practices” step that would be worth undertaking, given the potential scale of the data releases that the city would be making. Data policies like this one are cutting-edge projects, and MNCOGI wishes to see them crafted in concert with all applicable statutory requirements, so that they may become models for similar, future activities.

Please feel free to contact us with any additional follow-up questions. We appreciate your efforts to move the concept of government transparency into this new and innovative era.


/s/ Gary Hill
Gary Hill
Board Chair, MNCOGI