With the Minneapolis Police Department already field testing body cameras on a few handfuls of officers, it is somewhat ahead of the field in implementing the systems. Not a pioneer, exactly, but further along than many.
But is it too far along to get in line for what President Obama proposed Dec. 1? That’s when the president suggested the need for a federal program to help pick up the tab for the pricey equipment needed to record most interactions between cops and the public. During a White House meeting to discuss ways to improve relations between police agencies and residents — especially residents of color — the president said he would ask Congress to set aside $75 million to pay for 50,000 of the small lapel- or collar-mounted cameras.
According to a fact sheet distributed by the White House, the three-year program — dubbed the Body Worn Camera Partnership Program — would offer a 50 percent match to state and local policy agencies for cameras and data storage equipment.
Pilot program under way in Minneapolis
Minneapolis has just begun a six-month pilot program in which 36 field officers will test two different camera models. An evaluation will be conducted and a recommendation will be made for the purchase of enough equipment to have cameras on all 800 sworn officers starting in the middle of next year. So far, $170,000 has been set aside for the pilot program, but a full implementation is budgeted for $1.14 million.
A 50 percent federal match, therefore, would be a significant amount for the city. Council Member Blong Yang, the chair of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Emergency Management Committee, said the federal announcement “could be perfect timing” for the city’s program. A federal appropriation would need congressional approval but Minneapolis wouldn’t be purchasing additional cameras until mid-to-late 2015.
Yang, who supported the body camera program, said he is interested in learning if the cameras perform as promised — both improving police/community relations as well as reducing the amount the city has been paying out in police misconduct claims. Such payouts to complainants has been averaging around $2 million a year, Yang said.
“At some point the question is, ‘What’s it gonna cost us versus how much will it save us?’ ” Yang said.
St. Paul watching others’ experiences
Police body camera programs are already in place in Burnsville and Duluth. But the state’s second-largest city is still in the taking-a-look phase. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said he supports cameras on police officers, but also warns against placing unrealistic expectations on the technology, saying they are not a cure-all for improving police/community relations.
“I think it’s a good idea that has to be executed well,” Coleman said. He compared body cameras to earlier adoption of dashboard cameras and the recording of police interrogations.
“Technology is never as important as personal relations,” he said, and the city and the police are working on building those community by community. But while he thinks body cameras are a technology that is likely to spread across the country, he didn’t budget for them in his 2015 request and has no specific timetable for placing them on the city’s 600-plus officers.
That said, should the federal government begin offering financial help to cities, it could change the timing of adoption.
Sgt. Paul Paulos, public information officer for the St. Paul Police, said the department is always “looking at technology and how it can benefit us — not just the department but the community as a whole.”
The department is watching the use of cameras in other cities and the pilot in Minneapolis and is working with Coleman to decide what steps to take next. “There is going to be some money out there,” he said, and police agencies will take a look at making use of the federal program.
The hope: everyone will behave better
Equipping field officers with cameras is an extension of the now-broad use of dashboard and grill cameras. But in addition to helping gather evidence to use to seek charges and convictions, the cameras are being touted as a way to improve police/community relations. That is, cops will behave better if they know all interactions are being recorded — and residents may as well. The video could also protect cops from untrue allegations of misconduct.
One early adopter, Albuquerque, New Mexico, has recently experienced the differing ways body cams can affect police officers. In October, an officer was cleared of allegations that he sexually abused a drunken-driving suspect based on the video from his lapel cameras. But just this week, another officer was fired for violating department policy of having cameras turned on during every contact with residents.
Minneapolis’ camera procedures require that cameras record nearly all interactions with the public, and failure to record can lead to dismissal. The exceptions allow cameras to be turned off if requested by a resident but only if the officer decides the camera is inhibiting a victim or witness. They can also be turned off to protect undercover officers or confidential informants.
“The officer should take into account the overall circumstances and what is most beneficial to all involved,” the department procedures state.