St. Paul City Council gets an earful on police body camera pilot project

PUBLISHED: November 3, 2016

Police body cameras will increase public trust, especially in minority neighborhoods where trust is lowest — or they will be misused to disproportionately increase surveillance and enforcement in those neighborhoods while documenting a road map through people’s homes.

The St. Paul City Council heard both arguments Wednesday during a heavily-attended public hearing on a police body cam pilot project that will roll out Nov. 9. The council members also learned the hearing was virtually irrelevant — at least when it comes to the date of implementation.

“That date is firm? There isn’t any opportunity to push that back, based on any additional public testimony?” asked Jane Prince.

“This council does not have a role in approving departmental policy,” said Deputy City Attorney Rachel Tierney, explaining the council’s limited purview in organizing public comment.

Don Gemberling, of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, called the council’s apparent lack of authority over body cams troubling.

“It’s an internal police management issue? So I’m kind of going, What are we all here for?” asked Gemberling, who said he’s seen no clarification as to how and where the camera data will be stored. “As a resident of St. Paul … I can’t figure out how to vote for you on this kind of issue if you have no role in deciding this issue.”

Council president Russ Stark said the council will continue to accept public comments on Nov. 16, which is seven days after the pilot project begins in the police department’s Western District.

“It’s kind of bizarre that we’re having a hearing and not having any active role in the policy creation at this point in time,” Stark acknowledged.

Critics such as the open-government coalition St. Paul Strong have said public notice of the council hearing, which was posted last week, did not allow enough time for the public to weigh in before police begin the pilot project.

Others are bracing for legal challenges.

“This could be one of the most expensive adventures we’ve ever tried,” said council member Dan Bostrom, a former St. Paul police sergeant.

St. Paul police Senior Cmdr. Axel Henry said the Western District plans to test two camera systems back-to-back over 60 days. About 60 cameras will be used.

Public feedback will be accepted for at least three months. When a camera system is selected for the entire force, body cams will be distributed gradually to about 400 officers, with full implementation possible by October 2017.

Henry said 15 public forums on body cameras have unfolded over the past 14 months. In addition to legislative hearings, “1,383 people took our survey,” Henry said. “Eighty-one percent said that police wearing body-worn cameras increases trust in the police.”

Officers would be expected to turn on their cams at key times, such as during a traffic stop, frisking a suspect or making an arrest, and the footage would be private unless an officer causes great bodily harm or death. Individuals who appear in the footage can ask for a copy once an investigation is complete.

At Wednesday’s hearing, several speakers said police body cameras present both a chance to increase public safety and an opportunity for misuse and unintended consequences.

The St. Paul NAACP, the St. Paul African American Leadership Council, the St. Paul Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and Communities United Against Police Brutality have all objected to the pilot project.

Among their concerns, police plan to allow officers to review footage from their cameras before filing a report. Advocacy groups believe that will allow officers to play up the actions visible in the video, rather than offering a sincere explanation about whether they thought they had probable cause to make a stop or an arrest or resort to use of force.

“Police-worn cameras are no substitute for broader reforms,” said Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul NAACP. “In fact, (they could) be used to intensify disproportionate surveillance and disproportionate enforcement in communities of color. … There is a real risk that these new devices could be instruments of injustice.”

Rich Neumeister, an advocate of open government advocate and personal privacy rights, cautioned that the technology is changing fast.

“Facial recognition is talked about,” said Neumeister, referencing potential future add-ons. “Law enforcement will use those capabilities, and not just (for the stated) intent. … Discretion is very much left up to the law enforcement officer, or the government. … Many times the discretion does not go to the favor of the individual.”

He worried about how law enforcement may use or abuse the technology when off duty, and whether officers will be disciplined if they turn them off or on at inappropriate times.

Michelle Gross, founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said body cameras are angled so they do not necessarily capture police behavior, but they do capture a person’s response to that behavior — a dangerous double standard.

The most impassioned words came from John Thompson, a co-worker of St. Paul Public Schools cafeteria worker Philando Castile, who was fatally shot in Falcon Heights last summer during a police traffic stop. He said four months later, he’s still waiting to see dash-cam footage from Castile’s shooting.

“They can edit their mishaps,” said Thompson, who wore a hat with the name “Philando” printed on it in large letters. “You’re asking the taxpayers to pay for this, to pay to watch us get murdered?”

Thompson referenced the March 3, 1991, beating of a black man during a police traffic stop in California that sparked the deadly Los Angeles riots, which claimed the lives of 53 people.

“Rodney King was on camera,” Thompson said. “There’s numerous murders on camera. … We do not trust the police. It’s at an all-time low. Not to say any of you officers in particular. But the trust from the black community is at an all-time low. Rodney King was kicked repeatedly. It was on camera.”