Three Minneapolis City Council members, including a mayoral candidate, on Thursday pushed for city police use of body cameras — technology that has been in the national limelight in the wake of high-profile police shootings.
But the Police Department quickly rebuffed the proposal, saying more discussion and research are needed before the devices hit the street.
Led by mayoral candidate Betsy Hodges, the trio held an afternoon news conference to say that the city could provide $25,000 to outfit 25 officers with cameras within a matter of months. But shortly afterward, Police Chief Janeé Harteau's spokeswoman said the department is nowhere near testing such a "major undertaking."
The proposal also drew criticism from fellow council member and mayoral candidate Don Samuels, who indicated that while he supports outfitting officers with cameras, he believes that the idea was brought to the forefront too quickly.
No Police Department representatives were present as Hodges, Gary Schiff and Cam Gordon unveiled one of the wearable cameras made by Taser International. The devices, worn on an officer's sunglasses, glasses or headband, are already in use in cities as distant as New Orleans and as near as Burnsville.
If a pilot project succeeded, more money could be set aside next year to roll out more cameras in phases for the department's 569 patrol officers, the council members said.
Whatever the political muddiness surrounding Thursday's proposal, it's become a hot topic in Minnesota in the wake of high-profile Minneapolis police shootings.
Nationwide, millions of dollars in settlement payouts, combined with dozens of misconduct lawsuits filed each year, have been key motivators for adoption of the devices, which in one California city resulted in 88 percent fewer complaints against the department and a 60 percent drop in incidents of officers using force.
In Minneapolis, the case of Terrence Franklin, a burglary suspect killed in May while struggling with officers in a dark south Minneapolis basement, "highlighted the need" for the pilot project, said Hodges, who said the cameras could protect officers and civilians alike. A grand jury recently cleared officers of any criminal wrongdoing in Franklin's shooting.
"This program is not just the right thing to do for our communities of color, it is the smart thing to do," Hodges said. "It pays for itself."
Harteau was out of town during the news conference, but Hodges said she discussed the initiative with her two days ago. Hodges said the chief first presented the idea of body cameras at a council Ways and Means Committee meeting Sept. 30, stressing that research is important and saying, "If we do this, and I almost want to say 'when we do this' instead of 'if we do this,' we want to be successful."
Hodges stopped short of saying that the proposal has the chief's support. "This is something that, in committee, she said she did want to move forward on, and I've been working with her on that," she said.
But Harteau's chief spokeswoman, Cyndi Barrington, said after the announcement that the department "is not at a point at this time to move forward with body cameras in the near future."
Barrington said many issues still need to be cleared up before city officers even try the cameras. They include the cost of storing video, who would have access to it and civil liberties concerns.
"We are not ready to move forward with anything this major," Barrington said. "This has so many legs to it. This is a major undertaking for any police department."
She acknowledged that the chief has been researching body cameras "for quite some time" and talked briefly about them during a council budget hearing last month, but she's "not asking for funding until she has a detailed plan in place. And that's a long way off."
Samuels, who chairs the city's Public Safety Committee, said he was invited to participate in the news conference at the last minute, but was sick and didn't want to attend partly because Harteau and Mayor R.T. Rybak were not involved. The event hinted of political maneuvering, he said, and was "not appropriate."
"You jump at something without consensus, and you lose support because you don't think of everything, but secondly, you lose support because you defy the desire and the need to be included by those that have responsibility for implementing it," he said. "It grinds everything down to a halt."
A spokesman for the mayor deferred comment to Harteau's office.
Schiff traveled to Rialto, Calif., last week to study the cameras in use. The data collected by the devices are stored in a cloud-based system and cannot be edited by officers.
Footage from a personal body camera worn by Minneapolis police officer Timothy Callahan was crucial in a $3 million settlement to the family of David Smith, in the second-largest payout for police misconduct in the city's history. It was also key to the changing use of technology.
In that 2010 case, police were called to the downtown YMCA because Smith was acting strangely, tossing a basketball around and scaring children on the sixth floor.
When the officers approached him, he resisted and they used a Taser to stun him, forced him to the floor and held him face down. Smith lost consciousness and later his pulse.
Callahan's camera captured much of the incident. Smith was determined to have suffocated by the controversial "prone restraint" position.
Schiff called the settlement "a wake-up call for myself and some of my colleagues in the changing use of technology."
Gordon deflected questions about the political confusion, saying it's unnecessary to get the Police Department directly involved before the council votes next month on funding the project.
"I think it's fully appropriate to say, 'Here's three council members who have this great idea, and now we are taking this initiative, and now we want to build that support before expecting city staff to line up before it goes to the council," he said.