May 11, 2016

Testimony on a Minnesota bill about body cameras

Dear friends in the struggle for racial justice,

Below is what I read as testimony during the 10 May 2016 committee hearing in the Minnesota legislature about body cameras.  It isn't an exact transcript of what I ended up saying but it is very close for nearly all of it.

Although 3-1/2 of the 4 hours of testimony was against advancing the proposed bill, the committee ignored our testimony, openly acknowledged the power of the police lobby, and voted to move the bill along, unchanged. It probably didn't hurt that three or four of the thirteen committee members themselves are or were police officers.  No wonder I wanted to draw parallels the next morning between the election in an earlier era of white supremacists to serve on our legislative bodies and the final vote tally that took place yesterday.

There will always be more work to do to end racism, to uncenter whiteness, and to take down white supremacy.



House Committee for Civil Rights & Data Practices
10 Fifth Month 2016

My name is Elizabeth Oppenheimer.

My pronouns, when you refer to me, are she, her, and hers. I introduce myself this way because as I attend meetings with young adults, this is a practice that they are using more and more.

And I am a Quaker who feels compelled to speak to this issue and the proposed legislation.

Today marks the 3-year anniversary of the officer-involved shooting of unarmed Terrance Franklin, an African American man in Minneapolis.

First, before I forget, just as someone raised the question [at this committee hearing] "Where have you been while we've been developing this bill for years?" I would ask, Where have you been, to not know the concerns of communities of color and of white people who have direct relationships with those communities during sessions to discuss the use of body cams?  

I also want to acknowledge that opportunities for public comment yields no guarantee that community input would have an equal amount of influence as, say, the police lobby. In fact, given what Minneapolis just went through [see above link], major community recommendations were completely left out of the Mpls Police Department's proposed policy about use of body cameras. 


I'm giving testimony today in part because I want the record here to show a few things.

I want the record to show that the proposed legislation completely erases or discounts the long, important work at the request of the Minneapolis' mayor and police chief, already carried out by that city's Police Conduct & Oversight Commission there (the PCOC).

I want the record to show that the work done by entities such as the PCOC has included research-based best practices and community-based recommendations, all of which are effectively ERASED here.

Onto the proposed legislation:

I have a strong concern that the proposed legislation, which currently would allow police officers to have unrestricted access to recordings or "data" prior to writing their reports after an incident, would then allow them to in turn create data--in the form of police reports--that would set in motion a narrative that could explain away any misconduct that the bodycam may have recorded, whether or not there was "substantial bodily harm" [a phrase used in the bill].

Once a narrative gets out there, one that is based nearly entirely on official police statements without inclusion of eyewitness statements that may run counter to the officer-created data or narrative, the stars too often align to favor the police officer's version of what happened--and such unrestricted access to recordings produced by the bodycam unfairly advantages police and disadvantages historically negatively profiled communities, such as African American, Native American, and Latinx communities.

I caution us to think through who gets to decide what are "offensive to common sensibilities," a phrase already mentioned at this hearing. A historically oppressed group develops a different "common sense" from what an historically privileged group might develop. Similarly, who gets to decide what will or won't promote police accountability? 

To that effect, I want the record to show that the work by entities such as the PCOC has included researched-based best practices and community-based recommendations

In addition, a nearly unanimous group of community members at multiple sessions for bodycams in Minneapolis favored, as do I, keeping the recordings separate from the creation of written reports. That separation would keep in tact the EVIDENTIARY VALUE of both the recordings and the reports. 

In essence, this piece of the proposed legislation comes across as a form of willful denial and even rejection of the community that has already spoken up to put into place a policy that would PREVENT officers from reviewing the recordings created from a body-worn camera.  This seems to be willful disregard about what Minnesotans are actually saying and a disregard of what has already been identified as best practices when it comes to use of body worn cameras.

In closing, I want to mention the new TV series Underground and a little bit about my own background.

In Underground, the well-intended, heavily socialized white people made conscious and unconscious choices to disconnect from the people around them who are darker skinned, in order to "go along to get along" with their white peers. They had to choose to unsee, thousands of times a day, their brothers and sisters of color who were mistreated by so many.

We ALL start as idealistic children, at least I know that I did.  I promised to myself and to my second- & third-grade teachers that I would work for peace, that I would be friends with everyone, that I would be kind.  The young white son in Underground made similar promises in his heart. So did you, I'm guessing. 

But when **I** willingly turn away from pain and mistreatment of people of color who I know, and who have sat in my house and in my workplace and in my classroom, I am choosing to stay sheltered from their pain so I can stay disconnected from community members who call on me--on you--to be on THEIR side too, to create policy and laws that protect THEM from the harm of an unjust system ...  even though you may choose to unsee them, a thousand times a day: 

So when you propose legislation to disregard what communities here have said, communities that experience the most severe impact of our government's laws; when you vote to disregard researched best practices of bodycam policies from across the country, please don't think about the people you choose to unsee who end up as hashtags in social media or as leading stories on the evening news. 

Don't think about the promises you made to yourself and to your teachers, as I did, to be kind and peaceful and loving. Don't think about the facts about the disproportionate representation of Minnesotans of color who are targeted, profiled, brutalized, arrested, jailed, or killed at the hands of our police officers.  Don't think about the part of your soul--or mine--that dies, a little at a time, each time you or I act to unsee the ongoing harm of that deadly system. 

I have done that over the years--though not as a law maker or as a police officer--and I don't wish to betray my soul, my heart, my sisters and brothers of color any longer.

Please exclude the ability for officers to preview the data prior to writing their reports. And please consider reading the PCOC report in its entirety, given its national scope of research regarding best practices.

Thank you.