Minn. finally adding dashcams to patrol cars

Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — A recent proposal from state Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion is a welcome start toward rebuilding public trust in Minnesota law enforcement -- something wounded this year by the shocking Metro Gang Strike Force meltdown and high-profile police brutality settlements and allegations.

Campion, with backing by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, wants to put video cameras in patrol cars around the state that are not yet equipped with the technology. The intent: to enhance police integrity and accountability by recording more officers' encounters with the public. About $2.5 million in federal highway money would help put so-called "dash cams" in an estimated 500 squad cars if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration authorizes use of the funds for this, as it's expected to.

The proposal has widespread support from law enforcement across the state -- and it should. Campion is recommending an eminently sensible course of action in response to the shameful allegations of racial profiling and illegal property seizures that surfaced during the Gang Strike Force investigation.

Video is simply the most powerful, unbiased record of police encounters. Good officers have nothing to fear. But those inclined to engage in unethical behavior may be dissuaded by an on-board camera with footage not only reviewed by a supervisor, but also made available to the public and the media. Harlan Johnson, a former Deephaven police chief who is now the executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said it's like having a boss in the room with an employee. That worker is likely to work harder, perform better and hew rigorously to company policies. "The footage irregardless tells the truth,'' Johnson said.

Dash cams are embraced by law enforcement agencies across the United States. According to a report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), about 72 percent of the nation's state police and highway patrol vehicles have video systems. The U.S. Department of Justice has also recommended and funded the cameras' purchase for police departments grappling with allegations of racial profiling.

The IACP evaluated the cameras' use through a 2004 survey and concluded that they work. Agencies reported that the footage "has been invaluable and that the benefits of the in-car video camera far exceeded the original goals.'' The cameras not only protected the public, but also the police officers themselves. Footage helped track down suspects who'd injured an officer. It also helped clear officers facing unfair allegations of misconduct -- another key reason to support Campion's proposal.

The cameras must be implemented with care. Policies are needed to ensure that video is reviewed promptly by supervisors. That didn't happen last February when a dash cam captured shocking video showing Minneapolis police officers kicking Derryl Jenkins as he lay face down in a snowbank during a traffic stop. The Minneapolis Police Department updated its dash-cam policies to ensure that footage is properly evaluated; other agencies may need to do the same.

The Legislature also needs to act. Dash cam video is considered a public record, and should be. But law enforcement agencies can deny access to it by saying it's part of an active, ongoing investigation. Minnesota's Data Practices Act gives agencies too much leeway in determining this. The law needs strengthening. Failing to do so would undermine the smart policy proposed by the state's top law enforcement official.

Copyright 2009 Minneapolis Star-Tribune

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