When Winston Smith Jr. was shot and killed during an arrest in Minneapolis last week, none of the law enforcement officers or their vehicles were outfitted with cameras. And officials now say it's unlikely there is any video evidence of what happened on the top level of the Uptown parking ramp where Smith, 32, died.
There's no excuse for those officers to have been without body-worn cameras. With all that is now known about the value of video in police/suspect encounters, cameras should be required, standard equipment for those in law enforcement — especially in preplanned operations to make arrests.
The blame for the no-camera policy appears to fall squarely on the U.S. Marshals Service, the federal agency in charge of a special task force effort to apprehend Smith. The federal agency had prohibited the use of cameras by its local law enforcement partners. Then, after the fatal shooting of Smith, the marshals office said it would allow use of cameras but it would take a while for the new policy to take effect.
That's unacceptable. Cameras should have been in use when the task force was established.
According to a Star Tribune news story, since February the U.S. Marshals Service has been phasing in a policy that calls for local law enforcement agencies to wear body cameras during federal task force operations. However, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said this week that the no-cameras policy didn't change until Friday, the day after Smith was killed. The sheriff said the federal agency "has been misleading in their public comments to the media."
While announcing that his office and deputies would no longer participate in task force operations because of the camera policy, Fletcher said that several local law enforcement requests to use cameras were rejected. He said he was denied a request as recently as May 25 for his deputies to use body cameras on the task force, and that U.S. officials said they were "working on the problem."
A preliminary investigation found that sheriff's deputies from Hennepin and Ramsey counties shot Smith while working with the U.S. Marshals Service Northstar Violent Offender Task Force. Authorities say Smith fired a gun at deputies as they attempted to arrest him on a warrant from Ramsey County for being a felon in possession of a gun.
Minneapolis and St. Paul police were not involved. Both departments report that they do not participate in task force actions because of the no-camera policy.
The task force includes law enforcement officers from local agencies including the Hennepin and Ramsey County Sheriff's offices and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The group was formed "to seek out fugitives and enforce federal predatory offender laws," according to the BCA's website.
The BCA's investigation of the shooting continues and several nights of protests in Uptown have followed Smith's death.
Minnesota Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, wrote in an e-mail to fellow House members that task force members "were looking for another suspect when they received a tip related to Winston Smith" and shifted their attention to him.
Regardless of the changing circumstances, the public, Smith's family and the law enforcement officers involved all would be better served with video evidence of the Uptown shooting. As Jordan told a Star Tribune reporter on Monday, "every officer in the state of Minnesota'' should have a body camera.