City audit finds gaps in police body camera use

Minneapolis police officers are activating their body cameras significantly less than department policy requires them to, according to the findings of a city audit.

Officers activate their cameras for about two-thirds of all dispatches, according to the Sept. 19 report, far below the 100-percent rate required of them. Officers are also supposed to keep the body cameras powered on for their entire shifts and keep them activated until an event concludes — two areas in which officers appear to be falling short.

The new data came two months after the fatal shooting of Fulton neighborhood resident Justine Damond by Officer Mohamed Noor. Neither Noor nor his partner, Matthew Harrity, recorded the incident on their body cameras, prompting outrage from community members and public officials.

Then-interim chief Medaria Arradondo instituted a new body camera policy about two weeks after the shooting that required activation for all dispatches. The new policy allows for deactivation in limited situations, such to protect the identity of an undercover officer, but generally covers every incident.

The policy appears to be generating more raw video footage. About 71 percent of dispatches had a corresponding body camera video in the month after the audit, up from 65 percent of dispatches in the month before. Videos for use-of-force events increased from 74 percent in the month before the audit to 91 percent in the month after.

On Facebook, Mayor Betsy Hodges wrote that the new policy was “seeing results,” but added that there was still “work to do.” Hodges wrote that she’s proposed funding in her 2018 budget to expand the body camera program to all MPD personnel.

Other public officials didn’t appear to think the outlook was as positive. Ward 13 City Council Member and Audit Committee Chair Linea Palmisano agreed the increase in videos was a move in the right direction, but she questioned the quality of those new videos. Many were categorized as “non-evidence/general recording.”

Palmisano also questioned why over half the videos categorized as “training” had been mis-categorized. The police department is required to keep those videos for just 90 days, compared to at least one year and as many as seven years for other categories.

Palmisano also stressed a need for greater accountability for officers who don’t follow the policy. The body camera policy says employees who violate it are subject to discipline, up to and including termination, but doesn’t lay out specific levels of discipline for any offenses.

The audit did not cover disciplinary actions.

“We’re not going to get this program where we need it to be if there’s no consequence for not recording proper footage,” Palmisano said.

City Auditor Will Tetsell, who presented the audit to Palmisano’s committee, criticized the mayor and the police department for not ensuring robust enforcement of the policy. Tetsell praised the rollout of the camera program by the department’s Business Technology Unit, but he said no one has followed up to ask if the cameras have been effective.

“This is put in place for public officials for votes,” Tetsell said. “The only thing that’s benefitted is MPD and the city for collecting evidence.”

MPD supervisors should at a minimum have been reviewing video, Tetsell said, adding that the department is developing a process for doing so. He said his department will work with the MPD on how they’re going to respond to the audit findings.

Dave Bicking, of the group Communities United Against Police Brutality, said accountability was the biggest problem with the body camera program. Bicking said it was discouraging to see 31 percent of use-of-force incidents were mis-categorized after the new policy went into effect, up from 14 percent.

He said it was discouraging to see how many videos — about 25 percent — were missing the 30-second portion that cameras are set up to record before the officer activates them.

Cameras only capture that 30-second portion if they are turned on before the incident. Videos without that period indicate that the cameras were not turned on before the event, which would be in violation of MPD policy. Cameras are supposed to be powered on for an officer’s entire shift.

Bicking said discipline will prove to be the biggest challenge if the city is serious about improving the program’s accountability.

He said very few officers have been disciplined for any policy violations over the past five years. He added that officers could have a valid case if they file a grievance for being disciplined, since so few officers have been disciplined for the same offenses.

“The only thing they can do is say from here on out it’s a new deal,” Bicking said. “… They have no means of enforcing this (policy) without creating a tremendous change in the culture and the management.”