Wearable cameras for Minneapolis police could provide accountability, protection from lawsuits

Gary Schiff, Taser Axon
Minneapolis City Councilmember Gary Schiff wears an Axon camera and videorecorder made by Taser International for police use. The camera can be clipped to a pair of glasses or an officer's lapel. Schiff is holding up the battery pack for the unit in his left hand. The footage is stored on a cloud-based storage system. Picture taken Thurs. Oct. 17, 2013 at City Hall in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

In a bid to reduce instances of officer misconduct and help the Minneapolis Police Department defeat frivolous brutality complaints and lawsuits, city officials are considering whether to issue wearable cameras to police officers.

The city has paid more than $20 million to resolve misconduct lawsuits and claims during the last decade. With that in mind, several Minneapolis City Council members announced Thursday that are ready to fund a $25,000 pilot project that would pay for compact cameras that 25 officers could clip on a pair of sunglasses or a lapel.

Police Chief Janee Harteau was not notified about the announcement, but police spokeswoman Cyndi Barrington said the department is not yet ready to go forward with a trial.

However, last month Harteau told members of the council's budget committee that she has talked with chiefs in other departments that use body cameras.

"If we do this -- and I almost want to say when we do this instead of if we do this -- we want to be successful," Harteau said.

Harteau recently attended a conference on the technology in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Police Executive Research Forum. The Washington D.C.-based, non-profit organization provides technical assistance and training for police executives from around the country.

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Some of the departments using cameras have seen positive results, said Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which has worked with the U.S. Department of Justice to develop guidelines for the use of body cameras.

"I think it's too early to know what the implications are, but at least from what we're hearing it's been so far, a positive experience," Wexler said.

The organization conducted a survey of more than 250 law enforcement agencies and found that 63 are using body cameras. Most department officials said they began using the cameras to quote, "provide accurate documentation of encounters."

Wexler says the police department in Rialto, Calif., has seen a dramatic drop in complaints against officers and use of force by officers since it began using the cameras.

The New York Times reported Rialto saw an 88 percent drop in complaints against officers and a 60 percent drop in the use of force by officers over a year's time with officer cameras.

"I think that, both citizens and police officers, if they know they are being taped, are going to think twice about their actions," Wexler said.

But the technology is not cheap. It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit the more than 500 Minneapolis patrol officers.

Spikes on the chart are due to three large payouts: In 2007 Minneapolis paid Officer Duy Ngo $4.5 million after he was shot and seriously wounded by another officer a few years earlier; in 2011, the mother of Dominic Felder received $2.1 million after a jury found the city liable in a wrongful death lawsuit; in 2013, the family of David Smith was paid $3,075,000. Smith died after being subdued by officers in 2010. Since 2006, the city has prevailed in 98 officer conduct lawsuits, losing two.
MPR Graphic/Brandt Williams

However, if the new technology could reduce officer complaints as some claim it has in other departments, the cameras could save Minneapolis taxpayers a lot of money. An MPR News analysis of data provided by the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office found that since 2003 the city has paid out nearly $21 million in officer conduct-related lawsuit settlements, judgments and claims. The payouts involve incidents which occurred as far back as 1992.

City attorney Susan Segal said cameras and other new technology can help police officers gather crucial evidence in cases and exonerate officers accused of misconduct. In 2009, the city used data from a squad car's GPS system to dispute an accusation made against two officers.

"The officers were accused of sexually assaulting an individual and we could prove by GPS that they weren't in that location," Segal said. "And we wound up, in fact, being able to get a conviction for filing a false police report against that individual."

Technology is a two-way street that can also work against officers. In 2009, a squad car camera recorded officers tackling and subduing a man who later sued the department and received a $235,000 settlement.

However, some worry that the increased use of cameras and other surveillance technology could intrude on personal privacy.

Charles Samuelson, director of the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he does see a potential benefit from officer-recorded video. But he is concerned the release of some video to the public may infringe on the privacy rights of crime victims or raise questions of transparency.

"And by that I mean if the video and audio feeds are either interrupted suspiciously or edited -- like redacted," Samuelson said.

The City Council is expected to start discussing the camera pilot program in the next two weeks.