Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


How Hennepin County’s new body-camera plan for sheriff’s deputies will work

The sheriff’s office says it will launch the first phase of the body camera use this year. Before January 2020, it wants to outfit 148 deputies with the technology across various divisions.

body cam on a table
Supporters of police body cameras have long touted the devices as a critical tool for holding officers accountable and, as a result, curbing the frequency in which police use force against citizens.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

Hennepin County elected officials on Tuesday finalized a $5.1 million plan to equip sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers with body cameras joining the majority of Minnesota law-enforcement agencies and an estimated 10,500 departments nationwide that have adopted or procured the video technology. 

Here’s what we know about the new plan by the Hennepin County sheriff’s office and Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCCR), including when and where the law-enforcement officials will start wearing the devices, as well as what type of information they aim to record:

What, exactly, did county leaders approve Tuesday?

The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the contract between the sheriff’s office, DOCCR and the tech company Axon Enterprise Inc. which manufactures body cameras, Taser weapons and police software systems at its regularly scheduled meeting, without any discussion.

Article continues after advertisement

Axon, an Arizona-based startup, is the most popular vendor among Minnesota law-enforcement agencies with body cameras, per a 2017 survey of police chiefs. Hennepin County’s multimillion-dollar agreement will last five years. It will combine the sheriff’s office’s existing contract with Axon for Tasers with the body camera program, and set aside between $63,000 and $730,000 annually for body-cam video storage alone. The company will also provide equipment for redacting and reviewing video, under the contract, though it’s unclear what type of Axon body camera (either devices that clip onto officers’ uniforms or operate as eyewear) Hennepin County will use.

The sheriff’s office has already written draft guidelines for how and when most deputies activate the technology, using existing body camera policies across the country and Minnesota, according to Major Jeff Storms, who oversees the administration of training and policies. Leadership plans to finalize the policy when the department receives the camera equipment from Axon.

But the board agreed Tuesday that the county’s DOCCR needs to develop a separate policy for how corrections officers in jails and courtrooms, specifically, operate the devices considering state law that prohibits any cameras in most criminal courtrooms, among other issues. A new citizen-led advisory group and corrections leaders will tackle that issue in coming months, according to Department Director Catherine Johnson.

What’s the timeline for deploying the cameras?

The sheriff’s office says it will launch the first phase of the body camera program this year. Before January 2020, it wants to outfit 148 deputies with the technology across various divisions of the department: those who do routine patrol work, serve warrants, transport jail detainees, investigate crimes and respond to medical crisis situations, among other areas.

Then, before 2021, the sheriff’s office and DOCCR want to deploy another 302 cameras, including some among corrections officers and supervisors at the Plymouth jail, where adults convicted of felonies and misdemeanors serve short-term sentences.

Despite the increased workload from the program, the sheriff’s department does not have plans to create new staff positions to oversee the technology, according to Jeremy Zoss, the sheriff’s director of communications.

When will deputies have the cameras turned on?

Supporters of police body cameras have long touted the devices as a critical tool for holding officers accountable and, as a result, curbing the frequency in which police use force against citizens. 

Article continues after advertisement

To board commissioners earlier this month, Sheriff Dave Hutchinson emphasized that he wants the devices to capture incidents when staff’s safety feels threatened, deputies catch people committing violent crimes or driving illegally, or the public questions the department’s record of confrontations, among other scenarios. “We can’t afford to have an incident that’s reported without our version of the story,” he said. “It’s the eyes of what we’re doing for the public, for our government agencies.”

That means, per the department’s draft policy, deputies must have the cameras recording audio and video when they make traffic stops; interview victims, suspects or witnesses; encounter any tense situation; arrest or cite someone; receive orders from their superiors to use the cameras, or restrain people. “If a [body-worn camera] is not activated prior to a use of force, it shall be activated as soon as it is safe to do so,” the policy reads.

The department is also exploring if, or to what extent, it should buy camera technology that automatically turns on when officers draw their guns or Tasers, or activate their squad-car lights.

Why is Hennepin County launching the program now?

Nationwide, the trend of police departments deploying body cameras accelerated after a series of high-profile fatal shootings of black men at the hands of police officers in 2016, including Philando Castile in Falcon Heights. Even leaders who once believed the devices inappropriately infringed upon people’s privacy or created hassles for officers have come around to supporting them in the name of transparency.

Sheriff Dave Hutchinson
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Sheriff Dave Hutchinson
“This is not cutting-edge technology; it is becoming necessary technology on the part of many jurisdictions who believe it builds transparency and openness,” said Mark Thompson, the county’s assistant administrator for public safety, at a committee meeting to review Hennepin County’s program earlier this month.

All major law-enforcement agencies in Minnesota, including the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments, have body-cam programs with the exception of the Minnesota State Patrol, which relies on video-recording systems installed in troopers’ squad cars. Deputies with the Ramsey County sheriff’s office began using the technology last month.

“We’re catching up to current technology,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley, who represents parts of Minneapolis.

Hennepin County’s new body-cam plan is the sheriff’s office first major effort to improve public safety under Hutchinson, the successor of former sheriff Rich Stanek, who led the department for 12 years. Stanek had overseen preliminary studies of body cameras to gauge public feedback and consider a pilot project to outfit 35 SWAT team members with the devices. But the testing never came to fruition because of the technology’s financial cost, according to county leaders.

Article continues after advertisement

Then, more recently, supporters in Hennepin County faced another hurdle: Board commissioners questioned if the sheriff’s office had any conflicts of interest with Axon, formally called Taser International, considering the Star Tribune’s reporting last year that found researchers at Hennepin Healthcare helped the company market weapons as life-saving devices. On Oct. 1, the board’s public-safety committee voted to delay the body camera contract so that project leaders could review if, or to what extent, anyone involved had unethical connections to Axon. A couple of weeks later, Thompson reported back, saying county staff involved in the body-cam program did not have any conflicts with the company.

What laws govern the technology and its footage?

In 2016, former Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators established requirements for law-enforcement agencies that buy the cameras, as well as how they release the video footage to the public.

Nationwide, states have considerably different laws on how agencies meet such data requests from the public and under what circumstances body camera video remains private. For example, Minnesota law requires law-enforcement agencies to get permission from citizens in videos and to redact sensitive information before releasing them publicly. According to the 2017 survey of Minnesota police chiefs, the vast majority of police leaders have concerns over how they fulfill the public records requests with the rising popularity of the technology.

In addition to those disclosure guidelines, state legislatures have established rules on body-cam programs to varying degrees, too. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, which manages a state-by-state database of the legislation, Minnesota is among a dozen states that have passed laws outlining broad rules for where and when officers use the cameras, while an additional six states are mulling similar proposals. 

But local municipalities create specific, individual policies on the devices for themselves. For example, both Minneapolis and St. Paul updated their guidelines last year, following a series of controversies in Minneapolis, including the lack of body-cam footage in the fatal police shooting of Justine Damond and a subsequent city audit that found many officers were not following previously-established policies for the cameras. The new rules require officers to activate body cameras when investigating any traffic stop, 911 call, or situations in which they instigate the response. Meanwhile, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell updated his department’s rules to clarify that officers must keep their cameras’ sound on.

Correction: This story has been updated to note that the DOCCR’s role in the program is separate from the Hennepin County sheriff’s office’s.