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Much work remains for Minneapolis police body cams program

St. Paul Police are competing with Minneapolis for a $600,000 federal grant for body cams.

St. Paul Police are competing with Minneapolis for a $600,000 federal grant for body cams.

Body cams are coming to Minneapolis Police – it’s pretty much a done deal. But how they’ll be used and paid for, and whether they’ll live up to their primary purpose of police accountability, are the crucial questions that city council, MPD and the legislature still have to answer.

After a year of high profile police killings, citizen groups across the country have demanded police wear body-mounted cams. Law enforcement agrees they’ll be useful for both crime-fighting and settling misconduct allegations. The MPD recently concluded a pilot study using 36 officers, and a police advisory group tasked with collecting community input held three public forums and studied existing body cam programs in Burnsville, Duluth, New Orleans, Seattle, D.C. and Los Angeles. On Tuesday night, they delivered their finalized set of recommendations for the department to adopt.

The recommendations by the civilian Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC) include:

-Officers have to record every citizen encounter except in the case of undercover cops, sexual assault victims, informants, and mandated reporters. They have to get consent, and they can’t use them as surveillance of activists during protests and rallies.

-Officers won’t be able to look back on the footage when writing police reports, which are supposed to be based on first-hand impressions. In use of force cases, they won’t be able to view the footage at all until investigations are finalized.

-There will be a six-month grace period for cops to get used to the new technology. After that, there will be consequences for violating the body cam policy, but it’s up to MPD to decide what those consequences will be.

-Video footage would be kept in storage for at least 280 days – 270 for the window of time a citizen has to file a complaint, and an extra 10 for police to review it. Footage that captures a death would be saved indefinitely.

Grassroots anti-police brutality advocates like Communities United Against Police Brutality, which has had misgivings about the effectiveness of body cams, have praised the recommendations for being surprisingly well thought out. Still, they’re only recommendations. MPD has at least a month now to approve the suggested policies. And CUAPB president Michelle Gross fears that they won’t enforce meaningful consequences for officers who don’t use their body cams correctly.

“We don’t know what the policies are going to be,” Gross says. “The interesting thing is, they’re selling this to us as a police accountability measure. If we can’t get the footage, there’s no police accountability possible. What would be the point of it then? It just becomes a tool for them to go after the community.”

At the same time that MPD mulls over the policy recommendations, the city council is poised to purchase body cam equipment plus training for about $1.2 million. It’s already applied for a federal grant to help cover about half those costs.

That kind of commitment to a half-baked program just isn’t a good idea, Gross says.

Last month, the Minneapolis city auditor reported that the city needs to hire at least 20 people to handle the coming flood of data requests. Right now it has only two.

The legislature also has some work to do. Body cam privacy law currently states that aside from the above exceptions, any members of the public can request footage and use it however they want. Processing those requests would require many levels of bureaucratic review with the potential to create a massive bottleneck. The state legislature has considered updating the law, but hasn’t come up with anything concrete. A bill proposed last session would have made all footage private except that taken in public places, or in use of force situations. It didn’t pass.