Police get community feedback on body cams

Overall support tempered by certainty it’s no cure-all

News Analysis

As the Minneapolis Police Department plans to expand the implementation of body cameras in 2016, the Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC) has invited the public to share their thoughts on questions such as: “Do you support the use of body cameras?” “When should body cameras be turned on and off?” and “How will videos recorded on body cameras be stored and shared?”

police body cam
MSR file photo

A listening session held at Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis on July 11, showed a public highly engaged in addressing these questions because it truly matters to them. The public gathered at the listening session also was eager to place the issue of body cameras within the larger frame of community-police relations.

As PCOC commissioners Andrew Buss, Laura Westphal, Andrea Brown and Jenny Singleton sat at the front of the room, a videographer recorded the proceedings from the back. A series of community members approached the mic to share their views with much passion and concern for the civil rights and the dignity of the community.

First to the mic was Steve Cook, a Minneapolis resident who described an encounter during which his son was tased, choked and maced after police officers responded to a call for a noise violation. Cook supports the use of body cameras during all police-citizen encounters in order to prevent or provide accountability in situations like his son’s, which he called “police overreach.”

The next speaker, Metropolitan State University Criminal Justice Professor Raj Sethuraju, pointed out that by recording only the point of view of the officer, body cameras may still fail to provide an unbiased version of events. This question of perspective was reinforced by later speakers who argued that the placement of the cameras on officers’ chests might even magnify the height of citizens being recorded, reinforcing the perceived threat.

Among many more specific questions, the overwhelming theme of community members’ input was resistance to body cameras as a so-called “magic bullet” to prevent police brutality and instead a need to address the root causes of the lack of trust that continues to be a reality between many Minneapolis minority residents and the city’s police force.

Grey Demy also spoke, a tall African American man describing himself as a “professional subject of profiling.” He cited 4th Amendment violations such as physical force being used in response to his asking whether he was under arrest or a suspect for a crime when approached by officers.

Demy was charged with loitering outside of a check-cashing business where he had made an EBT withdrawal. His experiences led him to the conclusion that the police identify people who are the most vulnerable, particularly the poor, rather than focusing on “more important crimes like pedophilia or identity theft.”

Lisa Crockett, a North Minneapolis resident and activist, was adamant that if body cameras are implemented, we “need them on all the time,” adding “we can’t let them decide when to turn on and off the cameras like we let them decide when to shoot,” invoking the recent deaths of unarmed Black men such as “a young man named Quincy who was tasered by police and died of a heart attack” on Broadway in Minneapolis.

“So many mistakes take place, and I don’t think the police are bad guys, but we need cameras for sure,” Crockett concluded with a plea for police to consider the humanity of the residents.

Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, echoed Crockett’s concerns as some of the fundamental reasons for a lack of positive community-police relations. She further emphasized that the footage from cameras must be accessible to its subjects, their legal representatives, and the community.

Gross was adamant that there be clear policy regarding the use of cameras and mechanisms to discipline officers if policies are violated. At the same time, she criticized the Office of Police Conduct Review (OPCR) board’s handling of complaints about police misconduct. She cited official reports of 962 complaints filed in the first 30 months of OPCR’s operation, and only two were sustained that resulted in disciplinary action.

While several speakers argued in favor of public access to body camera footage, a few, such as Bill Bushy, a resident of the Seward neighborhood, raised concerns about data privacy. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Union Federation, voiced their support for data obtained from cameras to be retained as long as complaints against officers are accepted.

He went on to speculate that videos will prove “99 percent of interactions show the bravery of officers and the garbage we take.” Kroll’s use of the word “garbage” elicited vocal responses from community members in the room that the chair of the Commission quieted.

Suggestions were made about increasing police accountability through alternative methods. Citizens asked, “What are we going to get out of cameras for this high cost?” Malia Connolly brought cheers from the room when she suggested that funds devoted to expensive body camera technology be redirected to support a database of citizen-collected footage from cell phones.

Connolly also spoke in favor of officers carrying their own liability insurance, like doctors, nurses and lawyers. The city would pay the base rate, but rising premiums for perpetrators of misconduct would more effectively discourage abuses by officers.

Overall, the voices of the people present at the gathering seemed supportive of the use of body cameras, but only as one small piece in a much larger effort to address police accountability. Building trust with communities where residents see overreach and violation of the civil rights and dignity of the community members as an everyday occurrence is a long-term and slow process.

David Bicking captured this concern when, as one of the final speakers of the day, he asked the audience, “If we hear officers telling citizens ‘turn that camera off,” how can we trust them to turn their cameras on?”


KC Harrison and Raj Sethuraju welcome reader responses to Nadarajan.Sethuraju@metrostate.edu.