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Austin shooting highlights lack of police body cameras in many parts of Minnesota

The Austin police department was researching the technology before an officer fatally shot Kokou Christopher Fiafonou in December. 

Many smaller departments around Minnesota have yet to adopt body camera technology.
Many smaller departments around Minnesota have yet to adopt body camera technology.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

When an Austin police officer killed Kokou Christopher Fiafonou in late December, parts of the shooting in the southeastern Minnesota city were captured on squad-car video that has yet to be publicly released. But there does not appear to be footage of the entire episode, in which officers say Fiafonou confronted police with a knife but Fiafonou’s family contends he was doing nothing wrong when killed.

There might be more video if the 34-officer Austin Police Department had body-worn cameras. But they don’t, meaning there is less clarity about a case that has drawn protests in the city of 26,000 people.

Body-worn cameras, or the lack of them, have played key roles in several high-profile Minnesota cases where police have killed or injured someone. Experts say the cameras don’t always produce consensus about controversial incidents, but they do tend to reduce complaints against officers and are generally supported by the public and police.

Austin’s police chief and mayor said they had been pursuing body cameras for officers before the shooting, but a few hurdles have made adopting the technology a lengthy process.

Austin is not alone, and the incident underscores that while body cameras have become common in larger cities and counties in the state, particularly in the Twin Cities metro area, many smaller departments around Minnesota have yet to adopt the technology. 

A contested shooting

Austin police said they first encountered Fiafonou, who is Black, on Dec. 22, after officers were notified he was walking in traffic holding a knife. According to a department press release, police followed Fiafonou, who had a machete, into an apartment complex. There, officers used Tasers in an unsuccessful effort to subdue him. Over the next 24 hours, police say they tried to negotiate with Fiafonou, who had threatened to hurt other people, and also used pepper spray and foam bullets to try to apprehend him.

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Around 9:30 p.m. on the 23rd, when “police presence was drawn down,” Fiafonou left the building and walked to a gas station, where he “confronted” officers in the parking lot while armed with a knife, the Austin press release says. Officer Zachary Gast fatally shot the 38-year-old Fiafonou, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Kokou Christopher Fiafonou
Kokou Christopher Fiafonou
Fiafonou’s family, and Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, have said police harassed the man who they described as having a mental health crisis, according to the Austin Daily Herald and an online fundraiser for the family. The fundraiser, organized by Gross, says the family’s home was “destroyed by tear gas and other projectiles after police blew out all of the windows.”

Gross, who could not be reached for comment, and Fiafonou’s family have also called for any video of the incident to be released. They had initially asked for body camera footage, though there was none.

Why Austin doesn’t have body cameras — yet

In an interview Friday, Austin police chief David McKichan said he had already wanted body cameras for officers and the department had been actively researching how to buy and implement them. McKichan said around 2014 the department started using high-definition cameras in squad cars and linked them to wireless microphones to get on-scene audio. “Of course the next natural step is body cameras,” McKichan said.

The chief said the mayor and city council support body cameras, Austin and the police department just need to figure out the logistics of implementing them, and how to pay for the initial costs of buying the equipment and ongoing costs like storing data and hiring an administrative assistant to help handle the footage. McKichan said the cost of an assistant would likely be around $80,000 or more per year, and the initial equipment and infrastructure could be $160,000, a significant cost for a small department.

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Austin’s proposed general fund budget for 2022 was roughly $19 million, with police in line for about $5.8 million. Another $190,000 in a capital investment plan is also earmarked for upgrading police equipment.

McKichan has been chief for roughly three years, but with the Austin police department since 1997. He said over the years the agency has improved its technology, but that the department didn’t want to be an early adopter of body cameras in case it wasn’t effective considering the costs. The department also wanted learn from the experience of other agencies to make the rollout smoother. He remembered when police adopted squad car VHS tapes, only to remove them because they didn’t work particularly well.

Austin police chief David McKichan
Austin Police Department Facebook page
Austin police chief David McKichan
“It’s something I think we’re able to do,” McKichan said about paying for body cameras. “But you also can’t make a mistake when you’re talking about that type of money. And try to come back three, four years later and say, ‘Hey, this system is maybe not doing what we want, we might need something else.’”

Austin Mayor Steve King said the city is also hoping to pay for an $80 million sewage treatment plant upgrade, so while body cameras are a priority, they have other critical needs to take care of. Still, King said the biggest barrier to body cameras was “the mechanics of getting it in place,” rather than the price. The county sheriff’s department shares server, dispatch and record management space with the city, meaning they want to coordinate when adopting body camera policy. King said based on their budgeting process, the department could get body cameras approved by the end of 2022 or at some point in 2023. The city has been discussing body cameras for a couple of years, King and McKichan said.

“It’s not any more urgent than it was prior to that incident. It was a priority within one or two of anything for about a year,” King said. “At this point, it just probably helps the cause for the taxpayer to realize that yes we’re going to bear this cost.

“It just seems to be the right thing to do for the officers and the right thing to do with the community.”

Legislature failed to pass initiative to help departments pay for cameras

A survey of municipal police departments done by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association released in July found use of body cameras has nearly doubled among the agencies since a previous survey, five years earlier. Still, of 214 chiefs who responded, 95 said they don’t have body cameras. Of those 95 departments, more than 65 percent said cost was the main reason. 

There has been some federal grant money for body-worn cameras, especially for smaller, rural and tribal departments. And last year, state legislators nearly approved a $1 million grant program to help pay for body cameras, particularly among departments outside of the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. Yet the initiative was was dropped because the majority-DFL House, but not the Republican-controlled Senate, wanted regulations attached to the money requiring things like allowing the family of someone killed by police to view footage within 48 hours under most circumstances.

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Janne Gaub, a professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte who has studied body cameras for  seven years, said it’s not uncommon for small departments across the country to be deliberate in making sure body cameras will be fiscally responsible before adopting them because of the price tag.

Some have even adopted body cameras and then stopped using them because the ongoing costs of data storage is so expensive, she said. Smaller departments also might be skeptical of paying for body cameras, she said, because compared to larger departments with more officers covering more residents, they use force less often.

Gaub said research shows there is “really strong” evidence that body cameras reduce citizen complaints against officers and mixed research on whether they reduce police use of force. A lot of the research on force has been done on larger departments, rather than smaller ones, she said.

It’s harder to tell if body cameras have increased or decreased the odds of police being charged or convicted of crimes because they’re so rarely charged in the first place, Gaub said. Nevertheless, Gaub said police generally support body cameras because “they feel that they more often than not will exonerate them.”

At the same time, the general public typically sees body cameras as “helping guard against harmful and rogue police behavior,” said Eugene Borgida, a professor of psychology and law at the University of Minnesota.

Borgida said the footage doesn’t necessarily create a perfect record of a police encounter, especially if the lighting is bad or the audio is obstructed. And people can argue about the best way to interpret footage.

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But body-camera video has played a prominent role in recent policing controversies. Such tape was included in the trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder in the 2020 killing of George Floyd. (Although bystander video of the killing brought it national attention.) Brooklyn Center police footage of the killing of Daunte Wright in 2021 was part of the trial of former officer Kim Potter, who was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the case.

Body-camera footage helped acquit Jaleel Stallings of charges after shooting at police the week after Floyd’s death. He said he acted in self defense. Many also expressed frustration that there was no body camera footage when officers with a U.S. Marshals Service task force last year fatally shot Winston Boogie Smith Jr. in Minneapolis.

King, the Austin mayor, said he is wary of a “rush” to release body camera footage after a police killing. Still, he said he wouldn’t hesitate to tap into any available state grant money if it required disclosure within 48 hours to the family of someone killed by police, especially if the policy is cleared by Minnesota’s county attorney’s association.

“I fancy our council very progressive and police body-worn cameras is no different,” King said. “We want to adopt the newest greatest best policy there is and want to have those things on our police officers as quick as we can.”