An audit of the Minneapolis Police Department body camera program has shown that police are coming up short in their use of an important tool of modern-day policing that enjoys broad community support.
Those habits must change — and soon. The expectations for officers should be made clear, as should the consequences for failing to comply. Taxpayers made a huge investment in body cameras, and it is dismaying to see both the casual compliance rate and the lack of urgency from those at the top, who should be insisting that this expensive and needed technology is used to its fullest capacity.
The body camera program was initiated in July 2016 and fully rolled out by the start of 2017. A statement issued then and signed by Mayor Betsy Hodges and then-Police Chief Janeé Harteau called body cameras “an important tool” and a “best practice for 21st century policing” that had been started only after “years of studying, testing and evaluating.” The resulting policy, they said, “strikes a balance between transparency and privacy while ensuring that accountability remains the central focus.”
How does that explain an initial policy that seemed almost designed for a low compliance rate, giving officers broad discretion over usage and no clear consequences for failing to do so? Among other things, the audit found that SWAT officers, the elite forces who respond to the most dangerous situations, were not using bodycams. Why? Across the force, auditors found that until a policy change this summer, some 35 percent of dispatched calls sampled showed no evidence of footage. Officers who did use body cameras often logged less than a minute of video per work hour. Some turned them off prematurely and without the required explanation.
Inexplicably for a program that supposedly had so much planning, supervisors were not trained in compliance review until this June — nearly a full year after the rollout. The city deserves an explicit explanation of this lapse, particularly from Hodges, who has ultimate authority over the Police Department and who championed bodycams as a mayoral candidate.
Then-acting Chief Medaria Arradondo did make a much-needed change to the policy after the shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond in July, requiring that officers use cameras for all public interactions. Damond had reported a possible intruder behind her home and was shot dead by a responding officer, Mohamed Noor. Neither Noor nor his partner had turned on their body or dashboard cameras, even though they were responding to a possible crime in progress. Hodges professed her outrage at the time, but the audit shows that the episode was hardly an isolated one.
According to the audit, nonusage of body cameras fell to 29 percent after Arradondo’s policy change, and hours of video increased. That is an improvement, and proof that officers will respond to a clear directive. But it is still far short of what is needed.
Disappointingly, Arradondo said that because of the newness of the program, he “didn’t expect to see staggering numbers in terms of usage.” Forgive us, chief, but we did. In the department’s push to provide accountability and rebuild public trust, bodycams are not optional equipment.
Arradondo should expect more from his officers. They are employees who should not decide whether or when to obey a direct order from their boss. The technology is new, but not complicated. The cameras require a simple double-tap for activation. Batteries outlast an entire shift. Tap-tap. Done. Citizens and taxpayers have a right to expect that body cameras that are issued will be used.
Hodges and Arradondo should make clear that they expect nothing less. Not over some lengthy period of time. Now.