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3 Minneapolis council members tout personal police cameras but bypass public safety personnel

Without police involvement, mayoral candidate Betsy Hodges and two colleagues unveil pilot-project proposal.

City Council Members Cam Gordon, Betsy Hodges and Gary Schiff announced Thursday that they had found $25,000 in the 2013 budget for a pilot program to equip police officers with 25 video cameras.
MinnPost photo by Karen Boros

Three Minneapolis City Council members have decided it is time for the city to purchase body cameras for police officers, even though the police chief isn’t ready to establish such a program.

“She [Chief Janee Harteau] is in the research process only,” said Cyndi Barrington, police department spokeswoman, who points out that a body camera program extends far beyond merely clipping the camera onto an officer. “We’re not ready.”

The council members hosted a Thursday news conference to announce purchase plans without any involvement from the police department or Don Samuels, chair of the City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Health Committee.

Without the public safety experts in the room, the event seemed to be just another publicity opportunity for someone running for mayor.

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So their public safety message was diluted when the three council members — Gary Schiff, Cam Gordon and Betsy Hodges, who is running for mayor — stood in front of the cameras to announce they had found $25,000 in the 2013 budget for a pilot program to equip police officers with 25 video cameras.

There was no police chief there to talk about how wonderful these cameras might be or how useless. She was out of town at a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and KARE-TV is reporting that Harteau had asked Hodges to postpone the announcement. And there are plenty of other people on Harteau’s staff who could have spoken on this topic, but none of them were in the room.

The Public Safety Committee is chaired by Samuels, who is also running for mayor. According to Hodges, Samuels was invited but had a prior commitment.

Harteau, she said, talked about the cameras in response to a question during recent 2014 budget hearings before the Ways and Means/Budget Committee, which Hodges chairs.

After talking for nearly an hour about the department’s proposed $146.2 million budget and staffing needs, the chief spoke about the possible use of personal cameras for one minute and 23 seconds, according to the video achieves.

“I have been spending a considerable amount of time researching personal body cameras,” said Harteau at the beginning of her comments on the issue.

She goes on to talk about the importance of getting this done right: “I have been taking the lead on this because it is that important, that we really research it and do it right because it is something that is really comforting to all and another tool, but it can be an issue if it’s not worked out right.

“We need to have a plan,” said Harteau. “There are a lot of experts out there that have already been working on this. So I’m looking at best practices from the Police Executive Research Forum and others who have implemented this program.”

Any video collected by the cameras is considered potential evidence and, as such, comes under rather stringent rules for storage and access.

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Hodges defended the decision to move ahead with the news conference without public safety representatives when she was asked whether this was just another news conference by a mayoral candidate.

“This is a budget initiative we’ve been talking about at the City Council for quite some time,” she responded. “It’s good policy. It’s something we’ve talked about in the Ways and Means/Budget Committee, brought up by the chief of police. It’s something my colleagues have been investigating for quite some time.”

Gordon noted: “I think it’s fully appropriate to say, ‘Here’s three council members who have a great idea and are taking this initiative,’ and now we want to build support without expecting city staff to line up before a vote of the council. Once the council acts on these kinds of things, that’s when we want to see department heads come forward.”

MinnPost photo by Karen Boros
Schiff models one of the cameras.

Schiff visited Rialto, Calif., last week to study police use of video cameras and said he was impressed by what he saw.

“The experience in Rialto show the most important statistic: a 60 percent drop in actual use of force by officers,” said Schiff, adding that the same city also saw an 88 percent drop in complaints against police officers. “That means the officers resolved the issue in another manner than force.”

“It can change the behavior of somebody who is pulled over,” said Gordon. “They’ll know they’re on camera, and they’ll be more reasonable and respectful.”

“If a police officer realizes that all their interactions are recorded — the words they say, what they’re doing is being recorded — I think their tendency is to try to look their best and think twice,” he said.

At this point, there is no date set for a pilot project, and there is no plan, or budget, to outfit all of the 569 city patrol officers with cameras.