Updated: 3:48 p.m.
Over the last five years, the number of Minnesota law enforcement agencies that equip officers with body cameras has nearly doubled. That’s according to the latest survey from The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association — an organization representing more than 300 law enforcement agencies, from rural to metro, some police chiefs and about 150 command staff members across the state.
“We’ve seen significant growth in the use of body cameras in police departments across the state of Minnesota,” said Jeff Potts, executive director of the MCPA.
The group did a similar survey five years ago. He said mostly the objective of the survey is to get a sense of how many agencies statewide are currently using body cameras or are considering starting a body camera program.
There is a noticeable shift in the attitudes toward body cameras being worn by police, said Potts, with an overwhelming 90 percent of participants saying they were in favor of wearing body cams and that many found it “very valuable” to have body cams for gathering evidence, complaint resolution tools and building transparency with the public.
However, this doesn’t mean that those interested have the ability to have and sustain programs either.
From the data, about two-thirds of law enforcement officials who took the survey cite “lack of funding” as one of the main reasons why their departments don’t have bodycams. Potts said this is a significant roadblock for agencies wanting to implement bodycam programs, as much of the financial burden falls back onto an individual agency.
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“A strong majority say the reason they’re not using them is the financial kind of challenges of a body camera program,” Potts said. “They’re very expensive. Not only purchasing the camera, you kind of pay for the data storage. There’s a law, part of the Minnesota body camera law requires an annual audit and those audits are not inexpensive. Those departments that have not started a body camera program. ... That’s especially difficult for smaller agencies.”
About 28 percent of respondents said they had fewer than five officers in their police department. The lack of body cameras for smaller agencies continues to draw criticism and ire from communities where critical shooting incidents have taken place, even in rural parts of the state.
Where answers are few
In December 2020, St. Louis County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed 19-year-old Estavon Elioff in Mt. Iron. Authorities said he had a knife. However, deputies in St. Louis County are not equipped with body cameras. Squad car cameras did not capture the incident either. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said there were no other witnesses to the shooting. The deputies were cleared of any criminal charges in February.
Some law enforcement leaders immediately embraced the use of body cameras as a means to bring about better transparency and accountability. These factors are crucial to building public trust in law enforcement, said Pat Nelson, Criminal Justice department chair and program director for law enforcement at Minnesota State University, Mankato — home to the state’s largest four-year law enforcement training program.
“We talk about accountability and legitimacy, there are differences,” Nelson said. “Every community has different perceptions and interactions with their law enforcement. There are some that have no trust, and no legitimacy within their community between their law enforcement and their citizens.”
There is public skepticism of police accounts about fatal encounters with civilians, especially when there is no footage. A woman who was with Winston Smith when he was shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in Minneapolis on June 3 has disputed police accounts of the incident. According to the BCA, there is evidence to show Smith fired a gun from inside his car. However, the witness said she didn’t see him with a gun. The deputies who shot Smith were not wearing body cameras.
Demonstrators are still holding vigils near the site of Smith’s death, more than a month after the shooting.
There was also no footage of the shooting of Ricardo Torres by Olivia Police Department officer Aaron Clouse on July 4. The BCA has confirmed that the Olivia Police Department did not use body cameras at the time.
The Olivia Police Department has directed all inquiries about the incident to the BCA. And the Olivia City Council has not replied to MPR News requests for interviews. The lack of camera footage and other unanswered questions has led the Torres family to request an independent investigation from the FBI.
Last week grieving family and community members, unsatisfied with initial law enforcement accounts of the incident, gathered in Olivia to demand answers. The BCA said there was a sawed-off shotgun found at the scene of the shooting. But people close to Torres have said he would not have presented a threat to police.
“This is not right,” said Natasha Lindner, Torres’ girlfriend. “He did not deserve this. This is not the kind of person that (Ricky) was. No, no, never. He was a good man with a good heart.”
Correction (July 16, 2021): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the date of the Mt. Iron shooting. The article has been updated.