The goal is to increase police transparency and public trust. But residents Wednesday night told the St. Paul City Council they worry that new police body cameras and potential changes to the police-citizen review commission would not improve anything.
The city began a body camera pilot program last week and is considering recommended changes to the commission that looks into claims of officer misconduct. Emotional public hearings on those issues followed Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s announcement Wednesday morning that St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter and two other felony counts for fatally shooting St. Paul resident Philando Castile.
John Thompson, Castile’s friend and co-worker, said Choi’s decision was a step in the right direction, but other changes are needed to build the black community’s trust in police.
“When those lights come on behind our cars, we are terrified,” Thompson said before the public hearings. “Now you’re giving me a fake sense of security because they have a body camera that I don’t even know is working.”
Thompson was one of many residents and groups who have raised concerns about the city’s body camera policy. Don Gemberling, with the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, questioned a policy that says people will be able to view copies of body camera videos.
“How do I know a copy is the exact copy of the original? This goes to the trust factor,” he said.
The St. Paul chapter of the NAACP sent the city a list of suggested changes. The “trust buster,” the chapter said, was that the policy doesn’t prevent officers from viewing the footage before writing a report. That could result in officers changing written statements to match the video, NAACP leaders said.
Police began using body cameras last week. The department does not need the council’s approval for such policies, Deputy City Attorney Rachel Tierney said earlier.
Police Senior Cmdr. Axel Henry said police will continue to take feedback and tweak policy. After the test period, the city will roll out body cameras citywide. Henry said he expects police across the city will be using them by next October.
Citizen oversight of the department is critical, residents said, as they weighed in Wednesday on potential changes to the Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission. The commission reviews complaints against police and recommends disciplinary action to the chief, who has the final say.
After police arrested and used a Taser on Chris Lollie in a skyway lounge two years ago, commissioners cleared those officers of wrongdoing — a decision that led residents to question the board’s effectiveness. The city asked an outside agency to audit the board.
Residents overwhelmingly urged the council to follow key points of the audit, done by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. One controversial piece has been the suggested removal of two officers from the St. Paul Police Federation as voting members of the review board, which is primarily made up of citizens.
The community wanted the city to follow that recommendation, but it appeared the council would not support it, City Attorney Sammy Clark said. The recent recommendation from Mayor Chris Coleman’s administration was to replace officers with commanders, who “are a little more removed” and involved in discipline, Clark said.
St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus has said it is critical to have the voices of “subject matter experts” at the table. He said officers, who are up to date on use of force should remain on the commission as voting members.
The public hearing on the changes will continue next month.