NAACP supports St. Paul police body cams, but cautions planned use of footage flawed

Body camera in Duluth
St. Paul police officers in the city's western district will start wearing body cameras next Wednesday. Duluth officer Dan Merseth is seen in this Feb. 2, 2015, photo wearing a body camera.
Jim Mone | AP 2015

Twin Cities civil rights leaders are speaking out against the St. Paul Police Department's new body cam policy, as officers in part of the city start wearing them next week. The St. Paul NAACP supported the city's efforts to get the devices. But the group now says police need to change the rules about how they're used.

St. Paul police officers in the city's western district will start wearing body cameras on their uniforms next Wednesday. Patrol officers are taking part in the 60-day test along with SWAT team members, traffic cops and K-9 officers.

By department policy, police must record typical interactions with the public. That includes everything from arrests, to searches, traffic stops, as well as most victim, witness and suspect interviews.

At a City Council hearing Wednesday, Senior Cmdr. Axel Henry said the department will test not only the technology, but also procedures for handling the massive amounts of data the cameras generate.

"Every part of this process, meaning how evidence is handled, how public requests for data are handled, every piece of that is going to be looked at to figure out what works best."

The department's policy classifies most camera footage as private — in keeping with a new state law. But some video will be public, including when an officer discharges his or her firearm, and when an officer's use of force results in substantial bodily harm.

The policy prohibits officers involved in critical incidents — such as a deadly shooting — from viewing body cam video before they meet with investigators. They will be allowed to look at it as they write up reports on common interactions.

But St. Paul NAACP President Jeff Martin fears that will erode police accountability. Martin says prior review of footage could influence an officer to write a report to conform with what the video appears to show, instead of what he or she actually saw and thought at the time.

"You just do a supplemental report like they do now. You can look there and say the body camera showed X, Y and Z, and just add that to the report and submit it for charging like you would normally do," Martin said. "We're not saying don't look at it ever. But if you think there's something on there that can supplement your original report, then do that. But don't make it your original report."

Letting officers look at footage before writing reports has been controversial at the Minnesota Capitol as well. In order to get Gov. Mark Dayton's signature on the body cam bill earlier this year, lawmakers removed a provision that would have specifically allowed police to have prior review of video. Now, that decision is up to individual departments.

However some advocates for victims of domestic violence agree with St. Paul's policy.

Bree Adams Bill is with the St. Paul and Ramsey County Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, and has worked closely with police for years.

Adams Bill says audio recordings of victims' statements have been invaluable for bringing abusers to justice, and they help officers write accurate reports. She says police need to retain that tool if video recordings become the preferred method of capturing testimony.

"My concern is that if police officers don't have the ability to review the body worn camera footage, so much in that initial police report that we've relied on for so many years is going to be lost. It's the audio component of it," Adams Bill said.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell has said about 40 officers would wear cameras as part of the test, and he expects to deploy them across the department by the middle of next year.

In Minneapolis, all of the city's 500-plus patrol officers are using them, and officials say they're already yielding positive results.

City Attorney Susan Segal said Wednesday that body cam video of a victim played for jurors in a recent trial resulted in the conviction of a man for domestic assault.

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