Police body cameras: ready or not?

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Next month, Minneapolis police officers will be patrolling the streets equipped with body cameras, recording just about everything while on patrol and giving the public a chance to see it all.  When fully implemented, 600 officers will be outfitted with cameras at a cost of $4 million over five years.

But Minneapolis Police are currently working on a draft policy that is in conflict with measures under debate among state lawmakers about whether police body cams should be allowed in private homes without notice and consent, and who should be able to see such videos. 

The Fox 9 Investigators requested MPD body camera footage from the department's pilot project last year when just a dozen officers used the cameras. The sample included stabbings, messy domestics, routine traffic stops and medical calls.

For information about the MPD body camera policy click here.

In one of the videos at least a dozen police officers arrived on the scene of a medical call because there were several angry people at a north side home. Many were screaming for police to leave, while at least one woman pleaded desperately for police to stay. It was a scene of chaos and confusion but it was all captured on video in case there were any questions during an investigation.

Calls for more transparency from the department came after the police killing of Jamar Clark. That case left many citizens wondering if body camera footage could have settled lingering questions surrounding his death. The incident caused weeks of protest in the city. In March, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced no charges would be brought against the officers involved in the shooting.   

"I think the public's ready to have a closer, more transparent view.  I think they're ready for that to happen," said Deputy Chief Medaria Arradondo.

The video will be given to the members of the public who request it, as did the Fox 9 Investigators. The footage is released with minimal editing by department staffers. Nudity and juveniles who are prominent in videos should be concealed but just about everything else will be available for viewing.   Fox 9 chose to blur the faces of all the people in the videos which appeared in the video version of this story.

Even during a routine traffic stop, the public will see a lot. In two of the videos, the Fox 9 Investigators reviewed, driver's license information was shown and clearly visible to the camera.

Officers don't have to tell citizens they are wearing the cameras.

The MPD draft policy requires officers to activate the camera during everything from traffic stops to strip searches.   But it also gives officers wide latitude to deactivate the camera to protect informants, or if requested by a victim or a witness. And officers get to view the video, before they write their reports.

Ultimately, it's state lawmakers like Representative Tony Cornish (R) who will get the last word as they debate the issue.  He's a retired cop who wants to always keep the camera rolling but wants to limit who gets to see the footage.

"The camera has to stay on. The officer shouldn't be told when to turn it on or off.  The minute they turn it off some unarmed kid jumps out of a closet and gets killed, then it’s a big cop cover up,” said Cornish.

But the public video can also show a lot about private lives like the inside of someone's home. The unannounced body camera becomes in essence a hidden camera, a virtual tour into the intimate spaces and sometimes sordid aspects of people's lives, all without a search warrant. 

"I want the citizen to have the option as to whether they want them in their home," said Representative Peggy Scott (R). "We live in a free country and we should be free from surveillance."

The body camera will give people the officers' perspective, yet someone's biases will still fill in the narrative. How citizens see these video vignettes will depend in large part on how they already perceive police. And there will be no turning back, once the cameras hit the streets, they will become a routine part of an officer’s job.

"The same was discussed with squad car computers and squad car dash cam videos," said Arradondo. "This is going to be the future for law enforcement."

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