The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office rolled out its new body camera program Friday, becoming the third largest law enforcement agency in the state to adopt the technology.
Cameras start rolling for deputies in the department’s patrol division this weekend, and Sheriff Bob Fletcher has plans to equip all 400 deputies and corrections officers with the devices by year’s end.
“These cameras are a symbol of trust,” Fletcher said during a Friday afternoon news conference in Arden Hills. “This is a tool to help communication on the street, but to hold us accountable — and frankly, hold the community accountable.”
Flanked by several deputies donning the chest-mounted cameras, Fletcher outlined a policy that largely mirrors that of the St. Paul Police Department. Protocols require officers to activate their cameras if they receive a call for service or are in a situation that could result in any sort of law-enforcement action. Deputies aren’t obligated to run a constant live feed, he said, but battery life can withstand a full 12-hour shift.
Authorities have built in a 30-day grace period for employees to adapt to the system. After that, deputies could face disciplinary action if they fail to turn on their camera.
Deputy Lisa Daly says she’s grateful for the transition period, because she can see herself getting distracted and forgetting to turn it on right away.
“We’re all creatures of habit. It’s gonna be difficult for someone like me to remember to hit the camera,” she said.
The technology will have the most value during critical incidents in which officers use lethal force, Fletcher said. He presented the Sept. 15 fatal police shooting in St. Paul as an example.
Body camera footage released this week showed a knife-wielding man repeatedly charging at St. Paul officer Steven Mattson as Mattson yelled commands to drop the weapon, then fired two fatal shots.
The video was key to “quickly resolve what the facts were and determine the officer was indeed justified in using deadly force,” Fletcher said.
Although Mayor Melvin Carter and Chief Todd Axtell have defended Mattson’s actions, the county attorney has yet to rule on whether the shooting was justified.
Next month, deputies patrolling Ramsey County courtrooms will begin wearing cameras, too. Phase three of Fletcher’s plan involves outfitting corrections officers in the county jail.
The agency tested cameras for about a year and held five public meetings to gather community input regarding the draft policy.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said deputy Dallas Edeburn, who believes body cameras will help officers write more accurate reports and provide greater transparency about police interactions with the public.
Full implementation will cost about $1.3 million for the equipment and personnel.
The Sheriff’s Office, the largest law enforcement agency in Ramsey County, runs the jail, manages courthouse security and operates as the police agency for Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Little Canada, North Oaks, Shoreview, Vadnais Heights and White Bear Township.
While police across the country — including in Minneapolis and St. Paul — already wear cameras on patrol, Fletcher said that having corrections officers in the jail strap on the cameras will be “groundbreaking.”
The Minnesota State Patrol and Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office have yet to adopt them.
As the newly elected sheriff last spring, Fletcher vowed to act swiftly after the release of a 2016 video showing a Ramsey County corrections officer punching and kneeing a handcuffed suspect while others watched. The officer pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and resigned.
The assault prompted a $525,000 payout to the victim, Terrell Isaiah Wilson, this summer.
Fletcher says that incident “made it abundantly clear” that cameras were necessary inside the detention facility but declined to elaborate on implementation inside the jail until approved by the Ramsey County Board.
The biggest challenge could be determining retention and release policies for video taken in the jail. State law guides police body camera usage and video retention, but the jail video could fall under several different statutes, an assistant Ramsey County attorney said.
“Times have changed and there’s a lot of mistrust in the community,” said deputy Norm Thurmer, a third-generation law enforcement officer. “We do good things every day, and it’ll be nice for more of the community to be able to see that.”