Regents hold public forum on body cameras for UMPD

At the forum, students vocalized their thoughts on the potential for body cameras, a suggestion from Dr. Cedric Alexander’s report.

Body cameras sit in a charging cradle.

Image by Photo courtesy of UMPD

Body cameras sit in a charging cradle.

by Ethan Fine

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents held a public forum Friday to discuss the pending implementation of body cameras for University police.

Dr. Cedric Alexander’s report, which included recommendations to strengthen the University of Minnesota Police Department’s relationship with the community, recommended that UMPD purchase and employ body-worn cameras for officers, University Security personnel and Traffic Enforcement members. The report estimates that doing so would cost the University approximately $140,000.

The board held the forum per Minnesota statute § 626.8473, which requires local law enforcement agencies to allow for public comment before purchasing or implementing body cameras. University community members who wanted to voice their opinion at the forum could either sign up to speak or submit a comment online.

Board Chair Kendall Powell told guests that the campuses would consider their concerns, but no action is required from the board.

The policy outlined in the forum’s docket applies to the Duluth, Morris and Twin Cities campuses. Both the Crookston and Rochester campuses do not have police departments.

According to the policy, “[t]he primary purpose of using body-worn cameras is to capture evidence arising from police-citizen encounters by members of the University of Minnesota Police Departments.”

UMPD officers would be required to use body-worn cameras when responding to all calls for service and during law enforcement encounters. However, officers would not need to use body-worn cameras if deemed “unsafe, impossible or impractical to do so,” according to the policy.

Ultimately, it is up to the UMPD to determine whether or not body-worn cameras are to be used, as well as what actions are taken after the use of body cams. Some students are instead calling for a student and University community-led committee with oversight of the police.

“Police cannot simply police themselves,” Jae-Lah Lymon, a third-year student at the University, said at the forum. “That is the same as a kid choosing their own punishment, and they will always pick the least severe, easiest option.”

The policy would also require that body camera data is stored for 90 days. If the video contains an officer discharging a firearm, the department must keep that data for one year. If the video documents the use of deadly force by an officer or circumstances that resulted in a formal complaint against an officer, the department will keep that data for six years.

The board considers body camera videos confidential if any data is part of an active criminal investigation. Otherwise, videos are considered public, and individuals whose image or voice is featured in the video may receive a copy of the recording upon request.

“Access to the videos for the public, especially those making allegations of police misconduct, is vitally important,” Sarani Millican, a second-year law student at the University, said at the forum.

In 2017, an internal working group from the Duluth, Morris and Twin Cities Police Departments proposed a policy calling for the use of body-worn cameras, but the board chose not to adopt the policy at the time.

The board modeled the 2021 proposed policy off of the League of Minnesota Cities’ Use of Body-Worn Cameras policy model.

The new policy would require officers to perform a functionality test on their body-worn cameras before each shift. Any malfunctions will be required to be reported and documented in writing.

Officers using body-worn cameras would not have to inform individuals that they are being recorded or that a body-worn camera is in use.

“This is unfortunate,” Millican said. “Now everyone must assume they are being recorded, which will not help in building trust, which, in turn, will result in more adversarial encounters.”

At the forum, Lymon mentioned a George Mason University Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy study conducted in 2018, which stated that body-worn cameras “have not had statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior or citizens’ views of police.”

Lymon also cited the Urban Institute’s Evaluation of the Milwaukee Police Department’s use of body cameras, which found that those wearing cameras conducted fewer stops and had fewer complaints than those who did not. The evaluation also found that body-worn cameras did not affect whether officers engaged in the use of force.

“I’m hoping that the regents can put in place a rigorous policy that prevents abuse and creates a more trusted and fair community,” Sina Roughani, a third-year student in the College of Science and Engineering, said at the forum. “It’s just a matter of the public being confident that there are systems in place to protect the innocent.”