Interim Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo left one part frustratingly vague when he announced the city’s new policy for police body cameras: the consequences for officers who fail to follow the new rules.
“When that policy is violated, what happens?” said Andrea Brown, the chair of the Police Conduct Oversight Commission. “The first time you violate, what happens? The second time you violate, what happens?”
Turns out it will be complicated. As with all discipline of public employees, the avenues of punishment available to the Police Department when officers don’t turn on their body cameras will vary by officer history and the circumstances, and the new policy doesn’t lay out specific punishments for specific violations.
There probably never will be a straightforward grid of body camera policy violations and corresponding punishments, said Jim Michels, an attorney whose firm Rice Michels and Walther LLP represents the police union.
“An employer can’t just by fiat say if you do X the penalty is Y,” Michels said.
The rights of public employees are governed by Minnesota law, which requires employers to demonstrate “just cause” for the severity of their punishments. The number of an officer’s violations, his or her history of good or bad behavior and the type of violation will all be weighed when punishments are doled out.
A decorated officer who fails to test the camera before going on patrol might receive a softer penalty, Michels said.
“That is clearly a different level of violation than if you turn it off so you can beat the snot out of somebody,” he said.
Sgt. Catherine Michal, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Police Department, said Friday the department’s policy “doesn’t dictate discipline for any policy violations,” though Arradondo is working to update the department’s discipline matrix, which will clarify the consequences for violating various policies, Michel said.
Officer Mohamed Noor and his partner, officer Matthew Harrity, had not turned on their body cameras before Noor shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk Damond in the alley behind her home July 15. In a narrow reading of the city’s old body camera policy, they may have been in compliance, but Arradondo admitted this week that in the roughly eight months since the city started equipping officers with body cameras, “there are some officers who are not using them nearly enough.”
The new, more comprehensive body camera policy leaves open the possibility of punishments ranging from a 10-hour suspension to termination, but it isn’t specific. Transparency advocates and even the police union would like the city to make the consequences more explicit.
“We should have very clear policies,” said Brown, of the oversight commission. “From a civilian standpoint, it does need to be black and white. If this, then this.”
Al Flowers, a longtime community activist and sometime critic of the police department who is running for mayor, agreed.
“I don’t think it should be that complicated. That’s something that we need to push on,” Flowers said.
Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, acknowledged that “you have aggravating and mitigating circumstances in every case,” but he said the department should define the “baseline” punishment for each violation of the body camera policy, if only to reassure officers.
“Obviously my members are in a panic over this,” Kroll said. “Does it mean that if I forget to activate my body camera when I get out of the squad car I’ll be terminated?”
The new policy does bump up the severity of potential punishments for violations, but Michels, the attorney, said public employers in general would rather preserve disciplinary discretion than submit themselves to an automatic system of punishment.
“I wouldn’t want to have a completely prescriptive policy like that because it takes away my discretion as an employer,” Michels said.