The Minneapolis City Council has decided to go after a pot of federal money to pay for police body cameras — even if it means delaying the citywide roll-out of the much-anticipated program.
As presented to the council and approved Wednesday by the Public Safety and Civil Rights Committee, making an application for up to $600,000 from a new federal program to help equip police with body cameras could delay the roll-out by five months. That’s because the money, if granted, won’t be awarded until the fall, and federal rules prohibit letting local governments supplant local dollars with federal ones.
Robin McPherson, director of finance for the Minneapolis Police Department, said the department has completed its pilot program to test two different makes of body cameras. In a month, the department will report the results of the pilot to the council — along with the dollar amount needed to purchase the cameras for the 600-plus patrol officers who will use them.
But under the federal rules, the city cannot purchase the cameras until after the grant decision is made. If awarded, the city would have to match the federal contribution, though the city had been prepared to cover the entire price tag of $1.2 million.
The department had originally planned to begin equipping officers with cameras in October of this year. McPherson estimated that the grant process would push that roll-out to early 2016.
Deadline is June 16
The council’s Public Safety and Civil Rights Committee was empowered to authorize the purchase because the deadline is June 16 and the full council won’t meet again by then. The decision will be ratified by the full council, but the department can send off the grant application now.
Two committee members who supported applying for the grant doubted that it would really delay implementing the program. Council Member Linea Palmisano said there is much that can be done in terms of finalizing policy for using the cameras and training officers while the city waits for news of the grant. She added that the implementation schedule — now set for one precinct at a time — could be accelerated.
“I fail to believe that this is going to actually delay a full program for body cameras that provides a great service to those who want body-camera footage,” Palmisano said.
And Council President Barbara Johnson said she thought the police department’s schedule for starting the program in the fall was ambitious. “I know the speed at which things work around here and … I think it would be a miracle if we were ready to go with cameras — purchased, police training — by October,” Johnson said.
Minneapolis had already been moving toward the use of body cameras in December when President Barack Obama announced a program to help cities purchase the equipment. It was during a White House meeting in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting death of Michael Brown that Obama called for helping equip up to 50,000 police officers across the nation.
At the time, Minneapolis wasn’t sure if it would be eligible to apply, since it had already begun its field test. It turns out that the city is eligible, though the grants are coming later than what would be ideal.
St. Paul also plans to apply for grants
St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Paul Paulos said that city is also preparing to apply for federal grants. The city has not yet launched a body-camera program.
In Minneapolis, the testing of two different camera systems has been completed, said Lt. Gregory Reinhardt, who is in charge of the program for the MPD. He said the cameras were simple to use, with one-button/one hand controls, and called them good for gathering evidence.
He said that officers who tested them generally are in favor of using them department-wide. “One of the officers asked, ‘Can I keep it?’ ” Reinhardt said. “He had noticed that his interactions had improved. It might have been a change in behavior on both parts.”
That is one of the rationales for the cameras. Not only will they provide video to support or refute allegations of misconduct — but the cameras may alter the behavior of both officers and residents if they know a visual and audio record is being kept.
Interim policies require that cameras record nearly all interactions with the public, and failure to record can lead to dismissal. The rules 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 and confidential informants.
One practical issue raised was weather related, not in how the cameras performed in frigid temperatures, but how cold-weather clothing got in the way of mounting the camera on officers. He said the department will insist on vendors including different ways to mount them to make sure they still work with heavy coats, hats and gloves.
Feedback will be sought
The police department also agreed this week to work with the Police Conduct Oversight Commission to solicit feedback on the program before it is fully put in place. One topic will be policies covering when cameras are operated, who decides what data is retained and the privacy considerations for public requests for footage.
At least three public meetings will be held to hear from residents. The first meeting is set for Saturday, June 27, at 10 a.m. at the Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center, 2001 Plymouth Ave N.
Chief Janeé Harteau told the oversight commission Tuesday evening that the department will revise its interim standard operating procedures for the camera, using what it learned from the tests as well as public comments.
According to MPR, Harteau said that the city doesn’t need state legislation to craft its policy, but that some consistency across the state would be beneficial. Bills that would have restricted use of the cameras and delineated what footage could be released under the state’s Data Practices Act failed to pass the Legislature.