Coming this summer: cops on tape

By July, every Minneapolis traffic stop will be videotaped -- and the city expects misconduct lawsuits will drop

Motorists stopped by Minneapolis cops will soon be in the movies; 130 squad cars are getting cameras. Film should start rolling by July.

A small lens will be mounted inside the vehicle near the rear-view mirror, pointing to the hood of the car. When the microphone attached to an officer's body is turned on, the camera turns on, too. A small viewing screen located on the car's sun visor allows police to see what's been captured on film.

Though the camera may not catch the actual traffic violation that prompted the stop, what happens next between officer and driver will be recorded in picture and sound.

The state of Minnesota is paying the estimated $600,000 bill as a reward for the Minneapolis Police Department's gathering racial profiling data during traffic stops last year.

Former Maple Grove state Rep. Rich Stanek sponsored the camera legislation in 2001. Stanek, a Republican, was also a Minneapolis cop until January, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed him Commissioner of Public Safety.

"The benefit of the cameras is that now you have an independent third party who witnesses the enforcement action," Stanek said. "Whereas in the past, it was always the word of the officer versus the citizen. Now there is no disputing what happened on the stop."

Stanek said video will be valuable because it's on the scene, it's real time, it's impartial and accurate and can be used as legal evidence in court.

Minneapolis Police Lt. Greg Reinhardt, who commands the police traffic unit, said, "For the vast majority of the situations, it is not the violation that is in question, it's the attitude and the behavior of the police officer that is brought into question. I think it will prove that the conduct of police officers is professional within policy and is not discriminatory. In many instances, the officers involved in controversy will be exonerated of wrongdoings."

Larry Leventhal, a civil rights attorney in Minneapolis for the past 30 years, has represented several clients alleging police misconduct. He thinks cop cameras might effectively prevent some misconduct, but is concerned that because the police ultimately control the camera, any officer who has the inclination to do something he knows is wrong will turn it off or make sure the action will be done outside of camera range.

"Most officers are not going to be doing wrong when they make a traffic stop. If they are accused, this can be of help to the police, but I don't think it will help people who are abused by the police," Leventhal said.

Reinhardt said department policy requires officers to turn on the camera when making a traffic stop. It cannot be turned off until the stop is completed, which means until the driver pulls away or is taken to jail. In addition, the state law that authorizes cameras mandates that the entire stop must be recorded.

Leventhal says if a camera is turned off, he would raise the point in court since it is against state law and police policy.

"If the officer departs from their normal course of conduct, it is more likely that you could call his conduct into question," Leventhal said.

Although visual evidence might cut either way, Reinhardt noted that lawsuits against police have gone down in other parts of the country that use cameras. He thinks this will also happen in Minneapolis. Despite impending budget cuts and police layoffs that will reduce personnel and resources, he said the camera program would be a high priority.

"People have a different perception of what goes on in a traffic stop," he said. "In my division, I sometimes make as many as 30 car stops a day. One car to the next is no big deal. But if you are one of the individuals who got stopped, it may be the biggest thing to happen to you all day."

Peter Ginder, assistant city attorney, defends the city in lawsuits brought against the police. In 1997, there were 63 cases filed against the Minneapolis police. 25 were settled with a loss of $1.4 million. Four were tried and lost for $315,000. That number was reduced to 21 in 2002. Six were settled for $96,202. None were tried and lost.

Would cameras help?

"Overall, I think it will be beneficial to the city," said Ginder. "It gets rid of the 'he said-she said.' Though it won't stop lawsuits, it could potentially reduce losses."

It will be July before installation is complete, police are taught the technology and a written policy is developed. Logistical issues must be worked out, too. Officials estimate that 20,000 tapes will be collected every three months. Storing, labeling and monitoring that much information may prove daunting.

"I look at it as a win-win situation," said Stanek. "I get to answer that age-old

question, 'Do police racially profile?' and I get to put 700 video cameras in squad cars across the state."

Stanek's 2001 bill authorized $2 million for the cameras. Statewide, 80 police agencies are participating in the program. Outfitting each car costs approximately $4,000 for the camera, microphone, tapes and installation. The state is financing the program from a traffic-ticket and court surcharge assessed to traffic violators.

As for the 2002 racial-profiling data that earned the city its camera funds, an independent contractor is analyzing it to statistically test whether law enforcement agencies unfairly singled out minority groups. Racial profiling is against state law in Minnesota. The results have yet to be published.