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Report: Minneapolis police body camera program has major flaws

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Minneapolis Police Departments body cameras.
The Minneapolis Police Department shows the body cameras being used by officers.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Updated: 5:21 p.m. | Posted: 6:20 a.m.

The Minneapolis Police Department's body camera program has some major flaws, and the department needs to do a better job of policing the policy, concludes a report released Tuesday by the city internal auditor.

Officers often don't activate cameras when they are supposed to, improperly categorize the video they record and turn cameras off early without explaining why, the auditor found. 

For the report, city auditors sampled the number of hours officers worked while on assignments where body camera activation would be expected, and looked at how much footage was recorded. They tracked those results both before and after the department updated the rules in July to require officers activate their cameras for every call for service. 

Seventeen percent of officers recorded less than one minute of video per one hour worked before the change. That dropped to 7 percent after the rules were revised.

"After asking them (the cameras) to be on more, I think it's easy for them just to be on more," said council member Linea Palmisano, who chairs the council's audit committee. She said the increase in the amount of video recorded by officers appears to be general footage that isn't applicable to any investigations.  

Minneapolis Police Departments body cameras.
Body cameras charge on a wall at the Minneapolis Police Department's First Precinct.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

"It doesn't necessarily mean they're being used appropriately, unfortunately, is I think what we're finding out in the audit," Palmisano said.

The audit report also found that non-compliance with some rules increased after the policy change. For instance, the policy states that officers are required to explain why they turn off their cameras before an incident is over. Before the policy change, officers failed to provide an explanation in just over 50 percent of use-of-force incidents. After the policy change, it jumped to more than 75 percent.

Assistant police chief Mike Kjos addressed the audit committee, but had little to say about the findings of the report. He said department leaders haven't had a chance to dig in to the details. 

Police union president Lt. Bob Kroll hasn't gone through the auditor's findings either. However, he said many officers still aren't sure when a normal interaction with a citizen becomes an instance where they must activate their cameras.  Kroll also said officers have encountered limitations with their cameras. 

"If you're battery's done, you're basically out of service," Kroll said.

He also said in one instance, an officer told his sergeant he wanted to stay at the station to charge his camera battery.

"And this sergeant said, 'No, there's too much going on. Get out there and take calls without your camera. Let it charge,'" Kroll said. "Well, I wouldn't want to be the officer who gets in something serious without that camera running."

Kroll said the officer was sent out on patrol without the camera, but first asked his supervisor to put it in writing that it was ok for him to do so. 

Kroll isn't aware of any officer being disciplined for violating the body camera policy. The policy itself doesn't spell out what kind of discipline an officer could receive for failing to turn on his or her camera. 

Internal audit director Will Tetsell said the audit didn't turn up any problems with cameras running out of juice. In fact, Tetsell said the cameras work just fine. 

The most common problems appear to be operator error. And Tetsell said there's a lack of oversight when it comes to enforcing the rules.

"What the policy and program lack are how the program is to be governed and by whom," said Tetsell.

For council member Palmisano, that last point is the most troubling. Palmisano represents Ward 13, which includes the neighborhood where Justine Ruszczyk was shot and killed earlier this summer. The two officers involved were wearing body cameras, but didn't turn them on in time to record the shooting. 

"It's frustrating because I've been talking for years about this. And I've been trying to add resources to the infrastructure of a body camera program," said Palmisano. "And the concern now is how do we actually put the leadership in place to govern a program that gets to transparency and accountability because we don't have that today. That was made very apparent today."