Bodycams to put more eyes on Minnesota authorities

Minneapolis Police Departments body cameras.
The Minneapolis Police Department has been using body cameras for a few years. Now state law enforcement officers are going to be required to wear them. Starting in December through the spring, the State Patrol will distribute bodycams to more than 600 officers.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News 2017

Thirty-four Minnesota State Patrol cadets, all crisply dressed in maroon uniforms and peaked circular hats, stood at attention as numbered badges were pinned to chests at the “Scorching 63rd” academy graduation a few weeks back.

The troopers-in-waiting had listened intently as the ceremony’s speakers reinforced their intense training and enormous responsibility. Then, they raised their right hands to swear an oath “to conduct myself at all times in accordance with the highest moral standards and never commit any act that will reflect discredit on the Minnesota State Patrol.”

A few weeks from now, they’ll be among the troopers new and old to begin adding something else chest-high on their uniform to back up that oath: a body camera.

More than 600 state troopers will be assigned the cameras to record hundreds of thousands of annual interactions with the public — from traffic stops to semitruck inspections to civil disturbances. 

So will almost 200 Department of Natural Resources conservation officers along with hundreds more Capitol Security officers, BCA agents and other state-level law enforcement. In all 1,100 cameras are on order — slightly more than the number of officers who will wear them, to keep some spares on hand.

Under a directive from Gov. Tim Walz, which will be reflected across the agency policies, the footage from the state officer cameras will be subject to a more formalized release process than has covered local police departments.

To be sure, the state units are years behind many local police in using body cameras. But the State Patrol’s chief, Col. Matt Langer, said it’s not an entirely new concept for the patrol.

“Video systems are a part of our culture," Langer said, pointing to squad cameras in place for about two decades.

“Troopers have the advantage of being able to document their work both on the squad video, which quite honestly covers 90 percent of what troopers do, but also has a body-worn camera to augment the squad video, showing that perspective from the trooper but also capturing any event that that regrettably could be outside the field of view in the squad video.”

Minnesota State Patrol highlights a campaign to promote hands-free driving
Col. Matt Langer of the Minnesota State Patrol speaks at a 2019 press conference.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News 2019

The first cameras are being worn by 20 or so “power users” who will train others. The ramp-up starts in December and will extend into the spring, with troopers in different geographic districts being outfitted in waves.

All troopers will have them except those on aircraft, desk duty or executive detail — the plain-clothes officers assigned to security of the governor, for instance.

Once dispatched, the cameras must roll during stops, pursuits and enforcement actions. They'll automatically turn on when an officer unholsters a gun or Taser.

The Legislature approved more than $8 million to buy the cameras and account for data storage. House Public Safety Chair Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, helped shepherd the request through.

“What's quote-unquote good about body cameras is that it will then provide information about bad things that cops do,” Mariani said. “From police perspectives, the good thing about body cameras is that it'll provide information about the good things that cops do.”

In delivering the money, Mariani insisted it come with greater expectations for footage to be made available quickly.

“The state would provide the role modeling for what we believe, on the House side, are good, fair, best practices that reinforce the public's trust in law enforcement,” he said.

Mariani had hoped to also win passage of a new purchase program for local departments, accompanied by a $1 million annual grant program that would prioritize smaller, rural agencies. But that got left out of the legislation amid a dispute over expectations that departments receiving the money would follow state standards for maintaining and releasing footage.

Under the State Patrol’s written policy, there will be routine independent audits of trooper footage. And if there is use of force that results in a death, that person’s family is assured access to the incident video within five days. 

That’s in contrast to most Minnesota police departments, where such release is discretionary.

Minneapolis Police Departments body cameras.
Body cameras charge at the Minneapolis Police Department's 1st Precinct.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News 2017

Similar policies for the DNR and other agencies are being finalized.

“We would consider it a step in the right direction,” said Julia Decker, who tracks body camera matters as policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

“Law enforcement will often release footage if it is sort of advantageous to them — if it helps their side of the story,” she said. “And on the flip side, if the footage is not helpful, it's simply not released.”

But Decker said there is still a lot to learn about the camera project. She’s concerned about that line between the cameras as accountability versus surveillance tools, particularly for troopers assigned to protests.

“That is sort of the tension,” Decker said. “Anytime we are talking about recording of encounters between law enforcement and community members, that is a recording of First Amendment protected activity.”

Decker said her group will keep pressing lawmakers to revisit state body camera standards first adopted five years ago to calibrate them for the times.

Sgt. Mike LeDoux is a 27-year veteran and president of the Minnesota State Patrol Troopers Association, a union for most on the force.

He said his members are on board with the camera deployment.

"The vast majority of troopers understand the necessity to have this particular piece of equipment," he said.

LeDoux said the staged rollout should allow the patrol to work out any bugs. But he warned there will always be limitations, technological and otherwise.

"Since video cameras have become widespread in the law enforcement profession, we have some folks that maybe armchair quarterback based on a video,” LeDoux said. “And I think it's important to remember, every incident has a beginning, a middle and an end. And you can't selectively only look at 30 seconds of footage."

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