St. Paul, Minn., Publishes Findings from Review of First Few Months of Police Body Camera Use

The city found that the rollout was mostly going as intended, but some officers didn't turn on cameras when they were supposed to.

by Chao Xiong, Star Tribune / June 20, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — St. Paul police officers recorded more than 19,000 hours of body camera footage in the first three months of the year, according to information the department released Tuesday.

A review of some of the footage showed room for improvement in terms of officer compliance, but overall results were encouraging, police Chief Todd Axtell said about the department's use of the devices, which it started rolling out late last year.

"Some of the common mistakes that we observed through these audits include, moreso early on, officers forgetting to turn their cameras on," Axtell said. "We're dealing with human beings. Repetition will improve this."

Axtell released the audit's results Tuesday ahead of a presentation about it scheduled for Wednesday's city council meeting.

Asked if the audit led to any internal affairs investigations into officers' actions, changes in criminal investigations or other action, police spokesman Sgt. Mike Ernster said it was "solely focused on the policy and compliance."

Longtime public data activist Don Gemberling said the department should have also looked at what the cameras captured, including officer conduct.

"These things are sold on two major objectives," Gemberling said of body cameras. "They'll make police officers more accountable … And number two, they'll make people act a little better when they're interacting with cops.

"Hopefully managers are using [body camera footage] to correct [officers'] behavior, because that was objective number one to selling this to the world and Minnesota."

Ernster said supervisors who regularly review body camera videos will identify performance issues and address them when necessary. He could not recall whether any reviews have resulted in such action.

According to police: Officers recorded a total of 87,544 videos that captured 19,781 hours of footage. Of those videos, 2,477 were reviewed in part by supervisors and investigators as part of their daily duties.

The department's Body Worn Camera Review Committee watched another 72 videos in their entirety to evaluate "quality control, challenges associated with using the new technology and overall compliance," the department said.

Of the 72 videos, 71 were properly categorized, 69 included a 30-second buffer that is supposed to automatically record before an officer turns on their camera and 68 videos included a correct case number.

The committee reviews 24 randomly selected videos in their entirety each month to track trends, training issues and areas of improvement.

Axtell said he was pleased with the results, and that some of the noncompliance issues were due to typing errors and mechanical issues.

The department increased body camera training in response to the findings, he said.

All videos involving use of force are reviewed, the chief said, and the department's technology unit audits videos of all traffic stops and burglary calls.

Axtell said that starting in the second quarter, the department also began reviewing all videos for K-9 calls and motor vehicle crashes involving pedestrians or bicycles.

Gemberling, a board member of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information and a member of the open-government advocacy group St. Paul STRONG, urged the department to take those opportunities to look deeper.

"We looked at a whole bunch of videos? Well, what did you learn from that?" Gemberling said. "We learned that our policies and procedures work. Well, that doesn't tell me anything."

The department received 53 requests from private individuals, agencies and attorneys in the first quarter of the year for body camera footage, according to police. Thirty-six were released and 17 were either "denied, withdrawn or there were no records pertaining to the request," Ernster said.

Some key provisions of the city's body camera policy include:

  • "Officers must activate their BWC (body worn camera) at their earliest opportunity and before arriving on scene."
  • Recording is required when an officer responds to a call or incident, and for traffic and investigative stops, vehicle pursuits, arrests, transport of arrestees, frisks, searches of people, cars or buildings, encounters with resistant or aggressive subjects and when ordered by a supervisor, among other scenarios.
  • During a critical incident, such as officer-involved shootings, cameras can only be turned off when a supervisor or investigator makes the call.
  • Recording is prohibited in patient care areas of hospitals, in sexual assault treatment centers, during nonwork activity and at other times.
  • Officers are given discretion to record in other situations that are not clearly outlined in the policy. The department has said its motto is, "When in doubt, record."

©2018 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.