Minnesota shooting death shows underuse of police body cameras

Published 9:47 pm Wednesday, July 19, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — Police and protesters heralded the arrival of the body camera as a critical window into officers’ everyday activities after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

But as the killing of an Australian woman by a Minneapolis officer over the weekend showed, the technology depends on officers turning on their devices. And often they don’t do so.

Officer Mohamed Noor fatally shot 40-year-old Justine Damond on Saturday night while responding to an emergency call Damond placed to report a possible sexual assault near her house. Like the rest of the city’s officers, both Noor and his partner had body cameras but didn’t turn them on until after the shooting. It’s not clear why the officers hadn’t switched on their cameras.

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Damond’s death offered a tragic example of a common problem departments have grappled with in the rush to equip officers with body cameras. Though millions of dollars in federal and state grants have helped make the cameras standard equipment in major cities, their effectiveness still often depends on the officers who wear them.

A Department of Justice Investigation chided police officers in Albuquerque, New Mexico — an early adopter of the technology — for failing to turn on their cameras, citing a lack of both training and supervisor enforcement. An outside investigator found that Denver police officers captured just 1 in 4 use-of-force incidents during a 2014 pilot project, due in large part to officers forgetting to turn their cameras on.

Data from March released by the Minneapolis Police Department and published by television station KSTP show that officers wearing body cameras there recorded a little less than 20 minutes of footage for every eight-hour shift. Criminal justice experts said that number seemed low and was cause for a review that is underway among top city officials.

“I think all cities are in this learning curve where they’re having to see if officers are turning on their cameras,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director for the Police Executive Research Forum. “This is still a new technology. This is going to take some time to make it part of the DNA of what the police do.”

Cities across the nation have struggled to balance the need to capture footage with protecting individuals’ privacy and safeguarding against high storage costs for terabytes of recordings. The response has been narrow requirements for when an officer needs to flip on his or her camera.

Minneapolis launched a body camera pilot project in November 2014, just months after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the initial unrest that gripped that St. Louis suburb. Minnesota’s largest city began to roll out the technology throughout the department last summer.

Noor would have been among the last officers in Minneapolis to get the equipment because his precinct received cameras in October.

The department requires officers to turn on their cameras in more than a dozen instances, including for a traffic stop, search of a person or building, any contact involving criminal activity and before the use of force.

In the last instance, the policy says if officers can’t turn cameras on before using force they should do so afterward as soon as it’s safe.

The cameras aren’t intended only to catch wrongdoing; they are also seen as a way to protect officers from being unfairly accused. Just this week, an Alabama police chief said body-camera video cleared his officers after false claims circulated on social media that they had beaten a suspect and tossed him from a bridge.

On the night she was killed, Damond had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault near an alley close to her home in an affluent southwestern Minneapolis neighborhood. According to Noor’s partner, Officer Matthew Harrity, the pair heard a loud sound as Damond approached the squad car.

Noor fired from the passenger seat and struck Damond in the abdomen with one shot. She died at the scene.

State investigators said both officers turned on their body cameras eventually, but not until well after the shooting. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the state agency leading the investigation, said there was no known audio or video footage. Both officers are on paid administrative leave.

Wexler’s police training advocacy group wrote guidelines for body camera usage and recommends that officers flip on cameras immediately after being dispatched for a call to service. He noted that 911 dispatchers in Washington, D.C., where his group is based, confirm with police officers that their cameras are running when needed.

Minneapolis police say they were reviewing their policy even before Damond’s death.

Police Chief Janee Harteau will soon release changes to the requirements for body cameras, Assistant Chief Medaria Arradondo said Tuesday night without elaborating. Arradondo also said shift supervisors would work with patrol officers to ensure the cameras are turned on more frequently.

Michael White, a criminology professor at Arizona State University, said Minneapolis police officers’ low use of body cameras calls for a thorough review.

“Right now, I don’t think a lot of departments are looking at activation compliance. I think that’s going to change,” White said.

Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said given the scope of a police officer’s daily work, the data on Minneapolis’ usage struck him as low. He would expect 20 to 25 percent of a shift to be recorded, not the 4 percent in Minneapolis.

Stephens said departments such as Minneapolis simply need more time with the cameras.

“The longer the technology is in the field … the fewer instances that you’ll see where officers forget to turn them on,” he said.