Faced with increased criticism over its troubled rollout of body-worn cameras, the Minneapolis Police Department is overhauling its policy on the devices' use, which officials said was an important step toward enhancing transparency and accountability.

Officers will be required to switch on their recording devices well before arriving on the scene of an emergency, with the new policy requiring activation at least two blocks away from the "service location." If dispatched to a location less than two blocks away, officers must activate their cameras immediately.

If they violate the policy, they can now be disciplined.

"For the first time, we're going to give it teeth," Mayor Jacob Frey said at a news conference with Chief Medaria Arradondo on Wednesday. "Any body camera policy worth its salt must have consequences — this one does."

The state's largest law enforcement agency came under public scrutiny last fall after a city audit found that officers were frequently leaving their cameras off while responding to calls, even after the department's policy was tightened. The report concluded that most of the problems likely resulted from a lack of discipline for officers who flouted department rules on activating and deactivating the cameras appropriately.

Despite the lapses, officials said that no officers had ever been disciplined for a body camera-related violation. Frey said the policy is aimed at helping to ensure compliance, and is "designed to maximize the number of times it's supposed to be turned on."

The cameras have been adopted rapidly by police agencies across the country amid growing scrutiny of officers' behavior, even as their effectiveness as a check on brutality is unproven.

But in Minneapolis, the department-wide policy was first revamped after the killing of Justine Ruszczyk Damond in a south Minneapolis alley last July. Damond was shot by officer Mohamed Noor after she called police to report a possible assault behind her home. Noor was fired from the department last month on the same day prosecutors charged him with Damond's murder. Neither Noor nor his partner, Matthew Harrity, had cameras turned on during the encounter, prompting calls for a stricter policy. A few days after the shooting, Arradondo, then the acting chief, ordered officers to use the devices in nearly all public encounters, from traffic stops to 911 calls, with few exceptions.

Citing the ongoing criminal case, he declined to respond to a question about whether Noor and Harrity, who had already cleared the call when the shooting occurred, would have been in violation of the new policy.

While there was some improvement after the policy change — including activation in cases where officers used force to subdue a suspect — an audit, published last September, found that camera use remained inconsistent. The following month, the City Council instructed police officials to report quarterly on how often cameras are activated when department policy requires it. But department officials admitted at the beginning of 2018 that they were not yet tracking such data.

An internal department audit found that some officers were prematurely turning them off before a call's completion or mislabeling the recordings, creating the possibility that crucial evidence could be lost, officials said. About 30 percent of the videos pulled from a random sample of 25 officers either had no case number attached to them or had an invalid one. The audit also found that body camera usage actually decreased at the end of last year, with officers recording an average of 1,400 videos per day in December, down from about 1,666 per day in October.

The new policy

Under the new policy, officers who violate the rules would face discipline — ranging from a 40-hour suspension for failing to activate their cameras as required to termination for prematurely turning the devices off, particularly in cases involving use of force.

The department plans to debut a new online tool this spring that will allow users to track how often officers activate their cameras while on duty. The statistics will be updated daily, officials said.

The move followed public outcry after department officials admitted at a hearing this year that they still were not tracking whether officers were routinely activating their cameras, as requested by the City Council.

Justin Terrell, executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, said the need for greater police oversight was especially apparent on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, and was "part of the legacy of why we have to address police accountability."

Imani Jaafar, director of the Office of Police Conduct Review, which investigates civilian complaints against officers, thanked Arradondo for allowing enough input before revising the policy. The department had previously faced criticism for ignoring recommendations by the civilian-led Police Conduct Oversight Commission, which called for officers to turn their cameras on for all police calls. Officers previously had more discretion over when to record, which changed only after Damond's death.

Police officials previously announced that detectives and officers in specialized units like SWAT would be required to wear the devices, with few exceptions, and would be required to keep them powered on at all times, though not necessarily activated. Desk officers will also soon start wearing them, officials said.

The department also recently hired two civilians to help with reviewing the thousands of hours of body camera recordings for potential policy violations.

"Public safety by its very nature is imprecise," Frey said. "But when it comes to our body cameras that can't be the way we do policy."

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter:@StribJany