Last month's dust-up between Minneapolis City Council members and the police chief over body cameras for cops was more about timing than the substance of the issue.
In mid-October, three council members, led by mayoral candidate Betsy Hodges, held a news conference to say that the city could provide $25,000 to outfit 25 officers with cameras within a matter of months. They demonstrated one of the wearable devices that can be worn on an officer's glasses or headband.
Police Chief Janeé Harteau was out of town at the time of the public announcement, but through her spokeswoman said that more research and discussion needed to take place before cops start using the devices.
Both the council members and the chief are on record saying that body-mounted cameras are a good idea. Our hope is that they will resolve the timing issues and start using them as quickly as possible.
Minneapolis has paid out about $8 million over the past five years to settle allegations of police misconduct. Other cities have found that using body cameras to record police-civilian interactions reduces the number of complaints.
Harteau says it is not a question of "whether'' her officers will eventually wear cameras. "It will happen,'' she told an editorial writer last week. "It's just a question of when and how.'' Harteau says she has been researching the issue and has a department work group studying it. She expects to have a plan with a cost estimate to present to the council by the end of the year. She said that some pilot testing could begin next year.
Harteau points out that a competitive bidding process must occur and that policies must be set around storing and releasing the video. Within the next few months, she also expects the national Police Executive Research Forum to release its own study on best practices. She added that while she appreciates the council members "finding funding,'' she does not yet have a budget number for the total cost. Cameras are only part of the overall cost of collecting and storing the video, integrating it with squad cameras and setting policies for how it can be used.
Rialto, Calif., became the poster city for the use of cameras to police the police when an East Coast federal judge praised its program. The court mentioned the Rialto approach in a ruling that declared New York's stop-and-frisk program unconstitutional and ordered the city to start using cameras. That order since has been put on hold by an appeals court.
Rialto is one of the few places where the impact of the cameras has been studied. A year after cameras were introduced there in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period.
Albuquerque, N.M.; Fort Worth, Tex., and Oakland, Calif., have all started arming officers with tiny video cameras. And in Minnesota, Duluth will soon outfit its officers with the cameras, joining Burnsville and the Iron Range town of Gilbert as early adopters.
Another plus for the cameras is that they create a record of the attitude and demeanor of officers. Complaints against police often involve the way they treat citizens. Recordings offer proof positive of whether officers were rude, abusive or disrespectful.
When the officers and citizens know they are being recorded, it no doubt improves the behavior and causes encounters to be less heated from both sides.
Despite the obvious advantages of the cameras, legitimate privacy questions must be answered. When are the cameras turned on and off? When cops are called to private homes, are the interiors of those homes on video? Will neighbors or other witnesses be less likely to share information with police if they are being recorded? How long will video be stored, and when will it be released to the public?
All of those questions can be answered relatively quickly. If all parties are willing, it should not take years to incorporate this important technology into policing in Minneapolis.