By Adam Belz and Andy Mannix
Minneapolis police officers must turn on their body cameras when responding to any call, traffic stop or self-initiated activity, Acting Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced Wednesday, in a key change to city policy in the wake of Justine Damond's shooting death.
"What good is a camera if it is not being used when it may be needed the most?" Arradondo said at a Wednesday news conference, where he and Mayor Betsy Hodges acknowledged some officers have not been using their cameras enough.
In the eight months the equipment has been in use, officers have been allowed broad discretion on when to turn on the cameras.
The new policy, effective Saturday, will require officers to turn on the cameras in any encounter with the public, heeding an until-now disregarded 2015 recommendation from the Police Conduct Oversight Commission that police officer discretion on use of the cameras be all but eliminated.
Within about two months, police officials said, the cameras will activate automatically whenever an officer activates his or her squad car's lights. Installation of that technology is underway, taking about two hours per squad car. The Minneapolis Police Department has about 200 squad cars.
"We are not casting judgment on a single officer, nor are we looking at a single event; we are responding to our communities and to recent ongoing assessment," Arradondo said. "This policy enhancement has been in process for a few months now and many officers are using their cameras a lot and as they're intended to be used. But there are some officers who are not using them nearly enough."
The July 15 shooting of Damond by Officer Mohamed Noor was not captured on video because neither Noor or his partner, officer Matthew Harrity, had turned on his body camera, and the squad car's dashboard camera was also not running. The incident has drawn international attention and sharp criticism of Minneapolis Police, and led to the resignation of police Chief Janeé Harteau on Friday.
There have also been persistent questions about why the officers' body cameras weren't turned on. Last week, Mayor Betsy Hodges said in an online statement that she expects officers to turn on their cameras as soon as they begin responding to a call. She also called for an independent audit.
Minneapolis City Council members will be briefed on an upcoming audit of the program at a 1:30 p.m. meeting Wednesday.
State law requires law enforcement agencies that use body cameras to arrange for an independent audit every two years, starting in 2018.
Teresa Nelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said the less discretion officers have about turning on the cameras, the better.
"What we have asked for is a policy that requires activation before any citizen encounter," she said. "And the reason for that is, if we have policies when the officers are only capturing footage when they want to have the cameras on, then it becomes solely a tool for police surveillance. But when you have more mandatory policies and more footage, it becomes more useful for transparency and accountability for the officers.
In Burnsville, the first Minnesota city to equip its police officers with body cameras, the police department has done internal audits to measure body camera use, said police Chief Eric Gieseke.
The department's policy is similar to others around the state, and generally requires officers to turn on their body cameras when an interaction, such as a traffic stop, field interview or enforcement action begins.
In the seven years since the department started using body cameras, there have been a few occasions where officers didn't record an incident, Gieseke said. In the beginning, he said, the cameras were a tough sell for some officers -- but over time, usage has improved and officers often turn on the cameras even when they're not required to.
"It's so beneficial in resolving complaints -- even complaints of a small nature," Gieseke said. "It really sold itself over the years."
In Minneapolis, officers must upload the video at the end of their shift. The policy requires that body camera video be retained for at least seven years if an officer uses force or someone is arrested or receives a misdemeanor citation. Officers who fail to follow the department's policy are subject to "the full range of discipline," Arradondo said, including firing.
"We need to build and regain our community's trust. That is my charge and I've expressed that to all of our officers; that body worn cameras are a tool. It's not everything but it's a tool," Arradondo said,. "As I've told officers, we give them equipment to do their jobs. The one thing we cannot equip them with is the benefit of the doubt."
Staff writers Libor Jany and Emma Nelson contributed to this report.
(c)2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)