Last month, police in Golden Valley, Minnesota harassed a bunch of beachgoers for hanging out naked after flying a drone over the scene to see if they could spot some nudity.
The incident happened on a beach in Theodore Wirth Regional Park, on a section of the park known to everyone—locals, law enforcement, and the mayor himself—as Bare Ass Beach. It was a spot people knew to be hidden enough that you could let some skin show without offending anyone, and it was the center of a city-wide nudity ordinance debate to repeal laws against female toplessness in Minnesota parks.
But the push for cracking down on nudity on the beach came all the way from the top, emails obtained by Motherboard show.
Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris emailed the city manager, Tim Cruikshank on July 5. "I’ve gotten several complaints lately about the nudity at Bare Ass Beach on Twin Lake. Sounds like the patrols need to be beefed up either by us or MPRB Police," Harris wrote, from his iPhone.
From there, the police and city held meetings and went back and forth in email threads about how best to manage people relaxing with their junk out on the beach. Police Lieutenant Calvin Noble confirmed that the Golden Valley police used drones prior to officers "moving in" on the beach.
"I explained our stance on toplessness and that we wouldn’t cite for that," Noble wrote in a July 9 email, referring to a Zoom meeting with the Chief of Police and Police Commander. "Apparently, this beach is a big issue for their mayor and city council. I saw the video and it looked like Hidden Beach on a slow day."
The next day, an email outlining the night's events notes that police issued five or six tickets at Sweeney Beach. "Golden Valley wrote most of [the] tickets, since they will charge topless females over there. Think one was for consume [sic], before the beach goers started chanting/rioting and we had to clear out of there."
That report backs up what witnesses at the scene told local news outlets last month, that beachgoers shouted cops off the beach on the day the drone flew over.
Emails from Cruikshank on July 16 showed blurry photos taken of nude bathers from across the beach—just a handful of bros being bros, chilling in the water and beach, in a secluded spot surrounded by trees. Cruikshank suggested a "Band-aid" for the problem: signs. In an email, he asked staff to make signs to post on the beach with the Minnesota Parks and Recreation Board logo on them, stating: "This is an unauthorized beach. Drone surveillance occurs at various times. Violations of the law will be enforced by MPRB Police. Citations will be issued." (Less than a week later, according to emails, the signs were destroyed and the department was working on new, more permanent signs.)
The next day, Minneapolis Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto sent an email to police supervisors, with the subject line "Bare Ass Beach."
"If there is time and resources available, especially Saturday, can you coordinate a directed patrol focused on men exposing themselves? Drug and alcohol enforcement is encouraged as well," Ohotto wrote. "Please do NOT arrest/cite females if they are topless. The ordinance is in the midst of repeal and the City Attorney has said they will not charge," he wrote. That repeal is set for a vote sometime this month.
The whole mess shows a mayor trying to nudge a police department into taking action on something that arguably was not harming anyone else—all of this stemming from people complaining to the authorities about their neighbors. Boobs are safe for now on Bare Ass Beach, but the city did not respond to Motherboard's request for policies on the use of drones to spy on people.
But as the public relations response from the city of Golden Valley made clear, people in public spaces "have no expectation of privacy from being recorded by security devices," including drones flown by cops. Update 8/19 11:30 a.m.: A previous version of this story erroneously cited the mayor as being up for re-election.