Degree of acceptable officer discretion at issue
Why weren’t the mandatory body and dashboard cameras turned on when the two Minneapolis police officers responded to Justine Ruszczyk Damond’s emergency call on July 15? The question remains unanswered. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, community members, and the then-city police chief, Janee Harteau, have all said the cameras should have been on.
Fewer than two weeks after Interim Police Chief Medaria “Rondo” Arradondo was promoted to interim chief, he ordered that body cameras and dashboard cameras be turned on when responding to calls. The policy change became effective July 30.
“Officers need less and less discretion on when and how these cameras are turned on,” said Neighborhood Organizing for Change (NOC) Executive Director Anthony Newby in an MSR phone interview last week. “We think it is a good thing.”
Two years ago, the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC) submitted a recommendation that cameras be activated on all service calls. However, when the body camera policy was finally adopted last year, officers were given discretion in using the cameras contrary to the PCOC recommendation. Yet they could be subject to discipline including termination if they violated the policy, which many have found vague and confusing.
Whether the officers involved in the Ruszczyk Damond shooting will be punished internally or be found in violation of the MPD body camera policy remains under consideration The PCOC will reportedly discuss body cameras at its August 8 meeting.
Newby declined to comment about the Ruszczyk Damond body camera case because he didn’t have enough details. He did say, “The more discretion we can take out of the hands of police the better,” adding, “Now we see the consequences [of too much discretion].”
Interim Executive Director Teresa Nelson of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota told the MSR last week that although she supports Arradondo’s decision, changes to the new MPD body camera policy did not change the ACLU or the NOC’s fundamental concern about body camera laws.
Said Nelson, “We had urged the [state] legislature to create some very clear state-wide policies in how these cameras are to be used, and we see that did not happen.”
“Part of the critique of body cameras for the last couple of years has been that officers have so much discretion on when to use [them]” or how to use the data, said Newby. “There needs to be a strong, clear mandate; a strong, clear transparency around the data and when they’re used,” He asserted that individual officers should not be allowed to decide when and how to use the cameras.
“We have been asking the questions,” added Nelson. “We believe that the prior policy wasn’t clear enough, that activation should have been required. I think [the two Minneapolis officers] violated policy, but the policy itself wasn’t very clear and gave officers wiggle room to not turn the cameras on.”
Shortly after Arradondo was named interim chief, the ACLU-MN released a statement requesting a new body camera policy that mandates use at the beginning of every interaction with the public. They requested “swift and immediate action…to make the large scale changes needed to build a department that is just, responsive, and truly values the lives it is sworn to serve and protect.”
“This is a real positive step in the right direction,” said Nelson on the new MPD body camera policy.
“He might be the interim, [but] he recognizes the need, identified the solution, and he moved on it,” said Newby of Arradondo’s first major move as MPD interim chief.
Nelson, however, believes there is still some confusion among the general public on how police body cameras are used and how and when its footage is made available to the public afterwards. She pointed out that even if there was body camera footage of the recent shooting, “We probably would not see it for another six to12 months, because the BCA (Bureau for Criminal Apprehension) would be investigating and it is not public.”
“The state law says that when you have the use of force that footage is public.” She explained that when there is a criminal investigation of an officer, the criminal investigation data remains private for a lengthy period of time. The ACLU-MN advocates that police shooting footage and other pertinent data be made public as soon as possible, and further that such data classification “needs to be addressed.”
One remaining question is why the Ruszczyk Damond shooting seems to have garnered more protests than past shootings involving Blacks and police.
The Ruszczyk Damond shooting “is provoking an interesting kind of discussion across communities, and our hope is that this will force the conversation around what is a safe community that we want to create,” said Newby. “Those are questions that need to be asked.”
“Why is the response so different?” he continued. “Why is the outcry…so different? …It happens every day in our community. You cannot avoid the issue of race when it comes to police and police conduct, even when it is perpetuated in the White community.”
But has the Ruszczyk Damond shooting become politicized? “I am not sure,” responded Nelson, who added that she could see that happening especially with this fall’s Minneapolis City elections. “I also think maybe now there will be some meaningful police reforms and meaningful oversight from the mayor and the city council, and be more serious about change and about reform.”
Nelson noted that former MPD Chief Harteau, during her tenure, tried to institute changes in reporting and training, “but they were very incremental, and the rank-and-file wasn’t always with her, and it’s really difficult to change the culture.”
Some believe Arradondo could change the culture. The city council met Tuesday morning to discuss Hodges’ recommendation for Arradondo as MPD chief (results were not available at press time). “We think he is in an imperfect system, an antiquated system, but he’s somebody we have built up a lot of trust in over time,” said Newby. “The mayor is signaling that she is moving in the right direction,” he said of Hodges’ nomination.
“We need a chief of police who will…respect the humanity of African Americans and all people in the community… There is no one else internally or externally,” said a July 27 press release by several community members speaking at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in support of Interim Chief Arradondo.
Other community members have loudly voiced opposition to Arradondo and expressed their conviction that little will change at the MPD even with him as chief. We were unable to obtain comments from these dissenters by press time.
Newby said no matter who is the next chief of the MPD, there must be an “imagining” of better community policing, “not just in better training and better technology, although that is important, but also in alternatives grounded in community experience [that might] be the way to go.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.