The Hennepin County Board gave Sheriff Rich Stanek the green light Tuesday to move forward with a body camera program, clearing the way for deputies on the sheriff’s SWAT team to begin using them at the start of the year.

While the board has no direct control over the Sheriff’s Office or its policies, it had delayed closing the public comment session that’s required under state law to be held before a law enforcement agency can proceed with body cameras.

The board rescheduled the initial session in August after the three people who showed up complained that the draft policy for camera usage hadn’t been adequately publicized. Then last month, the board raised a number of concerns with the policy and adjourned without officially ending the hearing.

But the board finally closed the hearing Tuesday, after getting assurances from County Administrator David Hough that it could hold another public hearing if the Sheriff’s Office submits a proposal in the future to expand the body camera program.

“The public and the board should have another opportunity to share their thoughts,” said Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.

In an interview before Tuesday’s hearing, a frustrated Stanek said that he was ready to scrap the program if the board didn’t support it.

“This is more tied up in politics than good policy,” he said. “The public and the Sheriff’s Office want the cameras for transparency.”

A ‘living’ document

Stanek first went to the board to present his proposal for body cameras in January 2016, with the intent of moving slowly and methodically, he said. Not many agencies then were using cameras, so his office wanted to research costs, get public and law enforcement input and gauge deputies’ willingness to wear the device.

Stanek and his staff met with county officials and commissioners throughout 2016 to discuss the program. By the end of the year, the board had approved $80,000 to buy 40 cameras.

The Sheriff’s Office decided to launch a pilot program for the cameras with its Emergency Services Unit, commonly known as the SWAT team, which handles high-risk warrants and protests. The unit is assigned to about 75 incidents a year.

The Sheriff’s Office presented its draft policy to the County Board earlier this year. It researched policies from similar counties and noted the role of cameras in police-involved fatal shootings in Minneapolis and St. Anthony. Washington County is the only one in the state in which all deputies use cameras.

“The proposed policy is a living, breathing document,” said Stanek. “The board knew what we were proposing, but they didn’t appear to be paying attention.”

He said his office didn’t hear any concerns raised by the public or commissioners. The three people who attended the August hearing spoke against the policy, and the second hearing on Sept. 12 was dominated by criticism of the policy by several commissioners.

Linda Higgins was alarmed that the policy didn’t include language about camera use for deputies who weren’t part of the SWAT team. Commissioners questioned proposed guidelines on when to turn the cameras on.

“It’s overly strange the policy wouldn’t cover all the deputies,” Higgins said. “The draft is lacking a lot of details.”

Policy could be updated

In the interview before Tuesday’s hearing, Stanek said the County Board had the right to weigh in but that he couldn’t think of anything his office would have done differently in developing its camera policy.

“We’ve done it right since Day 1,” he said. “If the board isn’t supportive, we can pull the program and return the $80,000.”

SWAT team deputies will turn on their cameras at the start of an incident and won’t shut them off until the incident is over, said Stanek. If his office decides to extend body camera use to all deputies, it will update the policy. But the board still wouldn’t have the right to shape it, according to an opinion from the county attorney’s office.

The Minneapolis Police Department revised its body camera policy after the July 15 death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who was fatally shot by a police officer who hadn’t turned on his camera. Now city policy mandates turning on body cameras when officers respond to any call, traffic stop or self-initiated activity.

Three people spoke at Tuesday’s session, including Damond’s stepson. Communities United Against Police Brutality handed out an analysis of the body camera program, suggesting that the Sheriff’s Office shouldn’t use body cameras.