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Minneapolis police see promise in pilot project to use body cameras

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Police body camera
Minneapolis Police Lt. Greg Reinhardt holds up two body cameras that the department began using as part of a pilot project in early November.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

One month after the Minneapolis Police Department began testing body cameras, initial results suggest that they will be effective tools to gauge how police react when stopping someone on the street or responding to calls for help.

But because officers can decide for themselves whether to turn the camera on or off, critics worry police might avoid turning the cameras on during difficult encounters.

Despite the concern, the 36 officers who volunteered to participate the pilot project have done a good job of using their discretion when operating the cameras, Deputy Chief Travis Glampe said.

In an update this week to members of the city's Police Conduct Oversight Commission, a group charged with making recommendations about policies and procedures for wider use of body cameras, he said the pilot has been going well.

Volunteers have been testing the equipment and capturing many hours of video while on the job. Department officials are considering equipping all of its officers with the devices in the fall or winter of 2015.

Several video clips from the first weeks of the experiment show the perspective of the police officer who is wearing the body camera and microphone. 

In one video sample, an officer pulled over a driver for suspected speeding. The officer asked the driver for his license and proof of insurance and asked why the driver was driving so fast. The video ends with the officer letting the driver go with a warning to slow down.

A second sample video showed an officer responding to a call about people yelling outside in a residential neighborhood. The officer spoke to a man who said he was trying to give his intoxicated father a ride home. The man apologized for the noise and the officer asked him if he needed any help.

In a third sample video, an officer appeared to be walking down the sidewalk of a commercial district, talking to a business owner about an intoxicated man nearby. After trying to determine the man's identity and address, the officer suggested bringing the man to detox. 

In the squad car afterward, the video captured the officer reviewing the department's draft body camera policy to determine when he can turn the camera off. The officer turns off the camera before driving away.

The police department's current policy on the cameras recommends that officers wear them at times during their shift when they anticipate situations such as traffic stops, arrests or physical confrontations.

The policy does not require officers to turn the cameras on, or to keep them on. But so far, officers participating in the project have done a good job of using their discretion to operate the cameras, Glampe, the deputy chief, said.

"So far, so good. The officers that are participating in the pilot have really seemed to take on the body cameras," he said.  "There's been a lot of positive participation, which is what we were looking for."

Body camera proponents, including Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, say they will make police more accountable to the public.

Police Chief Janee Harteau has publicly supported some form of the program since she was sworn in as head of the department in 2012. She has said that the technology will also protect officers from false and frivolous claims.

Jennifer Singleton, who leads the oversight commission, said she would like to see officers err on the side of turning the camera on and keeping it on. But she said any final policy will have to ensure that the procedures protect the identities of sexual assault victims, police informants and undercover officers.

"There are situations where you most definitely would want to have extremely tight controls on who can view the footage and who can request to view it or else say no footage in those situations," Singleton said.

Glampe said the current body camera policy likely will change, as the department seeks input from officers and the public. The final policy will be in place by the time all patrol officers are outfitted with body cameras next year.

Glampe said he hopes the Minnesota Legislature will also address privacy issues as more police departments use or consider using body cameras.

Minneapolis police officers are testing the first of two different types of cameras to help determine which works best, especially during the winter months. So far, Glampe said, conditions have not been cold enough to determine how the cameras will perform in bad weather.

"At some point we want to see how it operates with gloves on, at night, that sort of thing," he said.


Editor's note: The videos included in this story were captured by a Minneapolis police officer wearing a body camera during the department's body camera pilot project. MPR News has obscured identifying information in the videos, which were provided by the Minneapolis Police Department.

Today's Question: Could police body cameras help build trust between cops and the public?