The Minneapolis Police Department is not tracking whether all officers are routinely activating body cameras and has not fully staffed the office tasked with reviewing body camera footage, despite the City Council’s directing it to do so last fall.
The department’s struggle to get officers to use the cameras came under intense scrutiny after the police killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, where the two officers who responded failed to record the encounter. In October, the council instructed police to report quarterly starting in the beginning of 2018 on how often body cameras are activated when department policy requires it.
Deputy Chief Henry Halvorson told the council last week that such a comprehensive report would be too labor-intensive. Someone has to check several databases and watch the video to decide whether each officer followed department policy, he said. Instead, Halvorson said, the police will analyze 2 percent of officers’ body camera usage for each quarterly audit starting in the second quarter.
The revelation drew sharp criticism from Council Member Linea Palmisano, who represents the district where Damond lived. “The police need to get their act together, quickly. They’re totally out of compliance,” Palmisano said in an interview. “I don’t expect them to have enthusiasm for it. But I do expect them to understand that this is extremely important.”
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo was not available for an interview Tuesday, but spokesman John Elder said more police are recording more hours of their work and the department is “making great strides” in enforcing the policy.
“We don’t feel that it’s been lackadaisical in any way, shape or form,” Elder said. “This is something that’s of paramount concern to our administration and really to the officers as well.”
A Hennepin County grand jury investigating whether any crimes were committed in Damond’s death do not have any body camera footage from the officer who fired the shot, Mohamed Noor, or the other officer who was there, Matthew Harrity. After Damond’s death, Arradondo announced a new policy requiring officers to use body cameras in nearly all public encounters.
In September, an internal city audit showed that even though the number of hours recorded by body cameras jumped dramatically after Arradondo announced the new policy, police officers in Minneapolis still frequently failed to turn on their body cameras.
A majority of officers were recording less than 20 percent of hours on the job. SWAT teams were not required to use body cameras.
Officers were not consistently documenting why they didn’t record video, or checking to ensure their cameras were working, or powering them on before activation to collect a 30-second pre-event video.
They also were not consistently uploading video at the end of their shifts, or entering the correct case numbers when they uploaded the video.
The City Council on Oct. 6 ordered the police department to produce quarterly reports on the percentage of time body cameras were being turned on when dispatch data indicated they should, and demanded the police department explain changes to the body camera policy, identify who is directly responsible for the body camera program, and describe any emerging themes that show up in the data or are being identified by supervisors.
Halvorson presented the police department’s response last week, and said they’ve completed a draft of a new, clearer policy and are gathering feedback to put it in place by the end of March. He said the department will set up new body camera training by September. Halvorson said the department has not yet hired two civilians to review the footage.
One position has been offered to a candidate, another candidate is starting the background check process.
“I think it’s foot-dragging, because they should have hired these people by the end of last year,” Palmisano said.
Palmisano said when it comes to the quarterly reports that Halvorson says are too labor-intensive, she doesn’t understand why the police can’t simply repeat the analysis done by the audit department in the late summer and fall, which she said was more comprehensive.
Elder, the police spokesman, said officers respond to 500,000 calls a year, and produce an immense amount of video. “For us to look at 100 percent of those that are wearing body worn cameras, we’d have to hire, I imagine, an entire fleet of people to do that,” he said.
Council Member Steve Fletcher said in an interview that while the department is not following the council’s directive, he sees progress and got an answer on who is responsible for the program: Halvorson.
“I both want to make sure there’s accountability for the reporting … and I don’t want to come down too hard on them because the actual thing, which is the body cameras being used, seems to be going better, and I want to encourage that and recognize that, too,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher said he accepts that a 100 percent report of officer body camera use may not make sense, but he’s not sure a 2 percent sample is adequate.
In the meeting last week, Council Member Jeremiah Ellison pressed Halvorson on the reason officers haven’t been quicker to adopt the technology. “To what degree do you think that there are a number of your officers that simply don’t like this tool and don’t want to use this tool because they haven’t had to use it in the past?” Ellison asked.
Halvorson said police were initially resistant to video cameras and GPS systems in squad cars, but came around.
“With the body worn cameras, our officers are getting to understand the importance of recording what’s happening and how that is helping them,” Halvorson said. “So there might have been an initial pushback on it, but when officers see the importance of it and what it captures, and what it shows from their perspective, there’s definitely more positive responses than we have had negative responses.”