Minneapolis police officers frequently fail to turn on their body-worn cameras, a City Council member said Monday, a day before the release of an audit detailing their use.
That was among findings of a two-month examination of the department’s body camera program, said Council Member Linea Palmisano, who reviewed the report over the weekend. It shows that most of the problems stem from a lack of accountability for officers who don’t activate their cameras when responding to calls or turn them off without explanation, she said.
“There’s some people who never have it on,” said Palmisano. “This is a very expensive program, and there isn’t oversight of this, and there isn’t governance.”
Details of the probe by the city’s Internal Audit Department are to be presented to council members Tuesday. The audit comes nearly two months after then-interim Chief Medaria Arradondo ordered officers to use the devices in nearly all public encounters.
At a news conference Monday, Arradondo released figures showing that body camera use has risen steadily in the past six weeks or so.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done, and we’re still learning,” said Arradondo, adding that he hadn’t yet read the audit report. Citing the program’s relative newness, Arradondo said he “didn’t expect to see staggering numbers in terms of usage.”
The policy change was announced in the wake of the July 15 police shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond. Her death led to calls to revamp the department’s body camera guidelines after it was revealed that the officers involved, Mohamed Noor and Matthew Harrity, did not have their cameras on when they encountered Damond in a south Minneapolis alley that night. The police squad’s dashboard camera also was not running.
Arradondo directed officers to record most of their encounters with the public, from traffic stops to 911 calls, with very few exceptions.
Department statistics showed that the number of videos recorded by officers jumped to 55,729 in the month after the new policy was announced, from 23,876 the month before. The number of hours of body camera footage more than doubled, from 2,521 to roughly 9,060, in the same period.
Palmisano and other critics said that such figures mask the fact that the percentage of officers who turn on their devices to record, for example, a traffic stop, remains low.
As investigators have tried to determine why Noor drew and fired his gun, their efforts have been hampered by the lack of video footage. State authorities last week handed the case over to the Hennepin County attorney’s office for possible charges.
The Minneapolis Police Department’s policy manual says that any use of force requires the camera’s activation. If that isn’t possible, the officer should turn it on “as soon as it is safe to do so,” the manual says.
Officers must justify in writing their reasons for not activating the cameras, the policy says.
The cameras have been adopted rapidly by police across the country amid growing scrutiny of police behavior. Critics say that officers too often fail to turn them on at crucial moments, rendering them useless as a tool of accountability and evidence gathering.
The audit findings seem to buttress suspicions by some local critics that officers in Minneapolis are not using the cameras as intended.
The debate was revived by a KSTP-TV story in July that said officers don’t turn on their cameras as often as they should. The report found that officers on average uploaded between 5.2 to 6.1 hours of body camera footage in a month.
For attorney Paul Applebaum, the cameras’ usefulness is limited, particularly in an age when many police encounters are captured on video shot by bystanders.
“The body cameras don’t seem to be preventing anything, excessive force, but they are helpful in sorting it out afterward to see what happens,” said Applebaum, a criminal defense lawyer who has sued the department several times.
He added that he hasn’t had any difficulty acquiring video footage from Minneapolis police since the program’s full rollout nine months ago. “I haven’t had a situation where officers are turning them off or not turning them off.”
State law requires law enforcement agencies that use body cameras to arrange for an independent audit of the programs every two years, starting in 2018.
City officials announced earlier this year that they would conduct an expanded audit of the body camera program, which took on greater urgency after Damond’s death. Among other things, the audit examined the equipment and software police use, how they use it and how consistently officers have turned on cameras.
While there was some improvement after the policy change — including activation in cases where officers used force to subdue a suspect — camera use remained inconsistent, Palmisano said, citing the audit’s conclusions. And policy violations often went unpunished, she said.
“I guess we didn’t get to discipline, because discipline never seems to happen,” she said Monday, adding that there seemed to be some confusion within the department about the chain of command.
Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the city’s police union, said by text message Monday that he hadn’t been briefed on the audit’s findings.
It may take some time for officers to get used to wearing the devices, Arradondo said. Rank-and-file officers were slow to embrace the use of dashcam video and Tasers, but today they are ubiquitous, department officials said.
Officials have said they are installing technology on squad cars that will automatically turn on the cameras whenever an officer flips on the vehicle’s emergency lights or draws his or her weapon.
Palmisano said that she was assured in a meeting Monday with department officials that police supervisors are undergoing training on how to more closely monitor officers’ camera usage.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence in that, given what we see in this report,” she said.
Staff writer Adam Belz contributed to this report.