Minneapolis officials call for improved policy on police body cameras

Police body camera
A Minneapolis police officer holds up two body cameras on Nov. 7, 2014 at Minneapolis City Hall.
Jennifer Simonson for MPR News 2014

The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension reported this week that the officers involved in the fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk last weekend didn't turn on their body cameras in time to capture the crucial moments.

That has some city leaders calling for more discussion on improving body camera policy, and the cameras themselves.

The Minneapolis City Council doesn't have the authority to write police policy. But they can ask questions, make recommendations and they can make budget decisions which impact the police department.

"You can't pay for expensive equipment like this and not use it. That doesn't make any sense," said Minneapolis City Council member Blong Yang.

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Yang is the chair of the council's public safety committee, where police budget items are often discussed. The public can expect to see police leaders, including chief Janee Harteau, in front of his committee soon, to answer some crucial questions, he said.

According to police policy, officers are required to turn the cameras on in more than a dozen scenarios. It may just be a matter of making that policy clearer, Yang said, but it's particularly important that officers use their cameras in situations like the shooting last weekend.

"We've created this expectation that we're going to have body camera footage for incidents. And then when we don't — if we don't turn it on — I think we lose public trust," he said.

But Assistant Police Chief Medaria Arradondo says some changes are already on the way.

"By the end of next month, mandated supervisor training will be completed throughout the entire MPD," Arradondo said. "Our frontline supervisors have been tasked with ensuring officers increase the activation of their body cameras."

Yang said he understands officers are often in situations where they have to act quickly and it may be hard for them to push the button that activates the camera right before they get into a conflict. However, officers are instructed to turn the cameras on whenever they can safely, during a use of force incident.

It is possible that officer Mohamed Noor or his partner officer Matthew Harrity could have captured the shooting after it happened.

"When an officer puts on an Axon body worn camera, they're already turned on. But they're only turned on recording in what's called the buffer mode," said Steve Tuttle a spokesman for Axon, the company which makes the cameras used by Minneapolis police.

In buffer mode the cameras record on a 30-second loop. So for instance, if an officer observes someone run a traffic light, they can turn on the camera after the fact. And as long as they did it within 30 seconds, they will have the video of that person running the red light.

According to the BCA, Noor and Harrity turned on their cameras later, but not in enough time to record the shooting.

Axon is preparing to roll out a feature that will entirely eliminate the need for an officer to manually activate a camera in shootings, in the form of a sensor that can be attached to an officer's holster.

"And when a gun is drawn, it sends a signal to turn on the cameras within 30 feet for 30 seconds," Tuttle said.

The sensor is not on the market yet, but will likely sell for about $100, he said.

At that price, it would cost Minneapolis around $60,000 to add the feature to the 600 officers using cameras right now.

Council member Andrew Johnson says that amount is reasonable.

"Absolutely, I think it's reasonable," he said. "How can you put a price on a life or death situation like that?"

Johnson says he's in favor of including funding for the new technology in next year's budget.

"We also need to make sure that the policy is as strong as possible," Johnson said. "And so working with the mayor's office and the police chief on any sort of tweaks to that. I think there's room for opportunity, as some have pointed out."

Johnson added that body cameras and other technology should not replace training, good policing and accountability.