MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Visitors at a Twin Cities beach learned police watch them in ways they didn’t expect.

The Golden Valley Police Department used a drone to catch beachgoers breaking the law by going topless or nude at Twin Lake, just west of Theodore Wirth Park.

The serenity on the somewhat hidden beach is what draws visitors, along with an understanding of sorts that many freely bare their body. Elsie Olin frequents the beach.

“It’s really well known for being a safe place to just be comfortable,” Olin said.

When Olin she was there Friday, July 10, that freedom of expression wasn’t free from consequence as officers began taking information from people to potentially cite them for being topless or nude.

Golden Valley Police Det. Sgt. Randy Mahlen says something had to be done.

“It had reached the point where it was time for people to be held accountable for their actions,” Mahlen said.

He said they have received more than a dozen complaints this spring and summer regarding people being nude, drinking alcohol or doing drugs at the beach. Over the past weeks, he said officers strictly educated beachgoers on the laws and gave warnings. But repeated complaints led to Friday’s enforcement. It included seven officers from GVPD and Minneapolis Parks Police.

“At that point everybody was fully clothed. We had tops on. There was no indecent exposure,” Olin said.

Even though their clothes were back on, it was too late. Mahlen said people were caught in the act thanks to their drone that was surveying the beach from afar. GVPD has officers who are trained drone pilots. They use the flying camera for several types of surveillance or police activity. The surveillance at the beach was legal since it’s a public place.

“What it did was validate all of these complaints we’ve been getting from residents,” Mahlen said. “It would be no different than a surveillance camera in a public place for a high-crime area.”

Paula Chesley was at a secluded spot on Twin Lake not far from the main beach. She was laying on her stomach and reading a book with her bathing suit top pulled down, exposing her breasts. She was shocked when several officers approached her and asked for her information to potentially write her a citation.

“If they are gonna cite anyone for toplessness I’m glad it’s me because I have energy to fight this,” Chesley said. “I think it’s really silly that people of all genders with all sorts of breasts can’t show them.”

Learning that police used a drone as part of their investigation gave her a different feeling.

“It does make you feel uncomfortable to just think like, oh, how often am I being watched? And what kind of authority is going on here?” she said.

Beachgoers that day also felt officers targeted certain people based on their skin color.

“The two or three Black people that were super visible on the beach, [officers] went straight for them,” Olin said.

Other witnesses in a Facebook video from that day also accused police singling out People of Color as some of the first to have their information take for being topless or nude.

Mahlen said officers were prepared to take information from several people who had been topless or nude, but that hostility from the crowd changed their plans.

“We made the choice that things were only escalating and we chose to leave,” he said.

Friday’s incident comes at a time when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) is discussing whether to repeal an ordinance that bans women from being topless at city parks and beaches. Here is the ordinance PB2-21: Proper Attire Required:

No person ten [10] years of age or older shall intentionally expose his or her own genitals, pubic area, buttocks or female breast below the top of the areola, with less than a fully opaque covering in or upon any park or parkway, as defined in PB1-1. This provision does not apply to theatrical, musical, or other artistic performances upon any park or parkway where no alcoholic beverages are sold.

Chris Meyer, District 1 Commissioner for the MPRB, supports repealing the ordinance. He wrote about it in a Facebook post saying in part:

I firmly believe the law should treat people equally regardless of gender. In spaces where men are allowed to go shirtless, women and transgender people should be able to as well. Inversely, in spaces where it would be inappropriate for women to expose their chests, it should be inappropriate for men as well. People should not be discriminated against just because heterosexual men have oversexualized them. Any argument that can be made against the exposure of a woman’s chest should apply just as strongly against the exposure of a man’s chest.

If the ordinance is repealed, it could potentially impact the beach at Twin Lake since part of the lake is in Theodore Wirth Park. Both Olin and Chesley feel a change in the law is necessary.

“Nudity is natural. There’s nothing sexual about my breasts,” Olin said.

Chesley agrees.

“I can understand people’s concerns based on the sexualization of the female breasts, and I would like to be able to move toward not so much sexualization of that,” Chesley said.

Jeff Wagner

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