Ramsey County deputies to wear body cameras by summer's end

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher discusses a plan for body cameras
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher discusses a plan for body cameras in front of the Ramsey County Board Tuesday.
Brandt Williams | MPR News

Updated 6:26 p.m. | Posted 2:23 p.m.

Ramsey County sheriff's deputies will start wearing body cameras by the end of this summer, according to Sheriff Bob Fletcher. The Ramsey County Board on Tuesday approved $1 million for the cameras and another $300,000 for four new full-time employees in the sheriff's office.

Plans for the body cameras have been in the works since March. Over the last several months, county commissioners have been listening to public feedback about the cameras. And commissioners asked Fletcher about some of the concerns they heard from constituents.

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Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher discusses a plan for body cameras
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher discusses a plan for body cameras in front of the Ramsey County Board Tuesday.
Brandt Williams | MPR News

Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo said some residents of her district voiced worries about who would be able to see video recorded by deputies.

"The concerns were mostly about data storage — who gets to see the video tape? Will it be leaked to the internet? I see the storage site is — you have to send it to a website where the video will be stored," she said. "There's a big concern about people's privacy."

Fletcher said the storage vendor assured him the video on their site will be secure.

The sheriff said one person asked if Axon, the company that makes the cameras and hosts the data storage service, will run images through facial recognition software.

"Facial recognition is exploding throughout the country. It's not completely accurate. That's one of the problems," said Fletcher. "But there was some concern about this data being imported into other databases and we've been told that will not happen. And that the data is ours."

Facial recognition software can identify people from images of their faces that are sometimes captured by security cameras. NPR and the Washington Post have reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has applied the technology to drivers license photos in a few states to find people in the country illegally.

In response to an MPR News query, Minnesota Department of Public Safety communications director Bruce Gordon said the department isn't providing access to its database.

"DVS has not received a subpoena or request from federal law enforcement agencies to provide access to the driver's license database," said Gordon.

Fletcher said his office will not share body camera video with ICE.

Deputies assigned to patrol duty will be first to receive the cameras. Then deputies who provide court security will get them. The last division will be deputies who work in the jail. Fletcher said his office will develop a specific policy for that last group.

Transparency is more complicated in the jail, said Fletcher, since the building is not easily accessible to the public. Fletcher said he's not sure if the current law governing police camera video applies to officers working in correctional facilities.

Jail work presents unique challenges for deputies, said Commissioner Toni Carter. And she welcomed the opportunity for the public and the board to have input on the policy.

"I believe it's different enough that we would also want to hear more about that as that policy is being derived and before it is implemented," said Carter.

Fletcher told Carter he will bring a draft of that policy back to the board within the next few months. Other deputies will follow the body camera policy set by the city of St. Paul for its police officers.

The presence of law enforcement officers wearing cameras can help build trust, said Fletcher, or it may discourage some people from calling or cooperating with officers.

"Yes, the cameras are there to help with transparency. And we will get there," he said. "But there also is this concern about facial recognition and 'I'm now captured on government data. And do I really want to be there when the police are there?"