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Activists push for MPD transparency with body camera footage

Activists have criticized Minneapolis’ updated policies as not holding the Minneapolis Police Department accountable.
Image by Tony Saunders
The changes come after a settlement between the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR), MPD and the city of Minneapolis was reached on March 31.

Nearly a decade after Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officers were first equipped with body-worn cameras, activists are continuing to fight for more transparency with the footage.

MPD implemented a six to nine-month program for select officers to wear body cameras in 2014 before expanding the program to the entire department two years later. The program has evolved over time to include requirements for all officers to wear cameras at all times, often in response to incidents in which an officer kills someone.

While all officers are now equipped with cameras, footage captured by the cameras may not be made public for months.

Paul Bosman, chief counsel for Communities United Against Police Brutality, has worked on roughly 20 lawsuits against officers. According to Bosman, state law has left loopholes in place for police to hide footage from the public while the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) conducts investigations.

“We request [footage] and they tell us it’s under investigation, and we can have it when the investigation closes,” Bosman said. “That could take between 10-14 months, in some cases longer, for the BCA to close their investigation and make the video public. Frequently, that stuff never made it into the media, so there was no practical accountability.”

Under Minnesota state law, body camera footage is nonpublic except when it is part of a criminal investigation. Once an investigation is complete, footage becomes public if it shows an officer discharging a weapon or using force that results in “substantial” bodily harm.

In Minneapolis, MPD’s body camera policies have evolved over time. MPD began requiring all officers to wear body cameras in 2016 after the officers who killed Jamar Clark while in police custody a year earlier were not wearing them.

Minneapolis updated the policy again in 2021 to prohibit officers from turning off their body cameras. The change came in response to additional police killings, including George Floyd in 2020.

Last year, MPD released some body camera footage one day after police killed Amir Locke. The BCA released additional footage after finishing its investigation roughly two months later.

Although the city has made improvements to body camera accountability, Bosman said Minneapolis remains one of many departments that is “stingy” with video footage.

“In the past, Minneapolis has been terrible when they release video on their own,” Bosman said. “We’re hoping Minneapolis gets better.”

Other activists such as Jae Yates, a member of Twin Cities Coalition For Justice 4 Jamar, said they are tired of waiting for Minneapolis to increase transparency.

Despite communities’ continued demands for accountability after MPD kills someone, Yates said Minneapolis officials have offered “smoke and mirrors,” rather than meaningful action to make body camera footage more accessible.

“The fact of it is, they’re in positions of power to make decisions that people will live or die by,” Yates said. “There’s going to continue to be a loss of trust between us and our city government because they’re not representing the people that are affected the most by these decisions.”

MPD did not respond to requests for comment.

Due to body camera footage’s inaccessibility, it has become the public’s responsibility to record and share unedited video of police encounters, according to Yates. Yates cited Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old bystander who recorded and shared video of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

Body camera footage is often traumatizing to those who see it, Yates said. However, the potential harm of viewing traumatizing footage does not justify censoring or keeping footage from the public.

Yates said while many people may have the privilege of the ability to click away from body camera footage, many communities have to witness it firsthand on a regular basis.

“These things are happening right where we live, and whether they’re on camera or not, we don’t have the luxury of being desensitized to it,” Yates said. “Because tomorrow it could be us, or someone we know, or a loved one.”

Robbinsdale police release Khalil Azad body camera footage

While Minneapolis is “horrible” at providing body camera footage, according to Black Lives Matter (BLM) Minnesota Founder Trahern Crews, footage accessibility is a statewide issue.

Crews said BLM Minnesota worked with the family of Khalil Azad to push local authorities to release body camera footage after his body was found two days after an incident involving Robbinsdale police last year.

On July 3, 2022, police attempted to pull Azad over for a suspected DWI, according to a police statement. Azad did not pull over and crashed his car into a tree before fleeing. Police searched for Azad and found his body two days later in a nearby lake.

Azad’s family countered the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s and police’s conclusion that Azad drowned, alleging differences between Azad’s autopsy report and photos of the body.

Robbinsdale police released body camera footage of the traffic stop on March 7, roughly eight months after Azad’s death.

Footage showed officers responding to the scene where the vehicle had already crashed and Azad had fled. Police detained two other passengers, one of whom was the car’s owner, and multiple officers and a police dog searched for Azad through woods, yards and water near the lake’s shoreline.

“Police canine, you’re under arrest,” police said as they began searching. “Give yourself up now, dog will be sent. Dog will find you, dog may bite you.”

A combination of legal hurdles and respect for the family’s privacy led to the footage taking longer to access, according to Crews.

“We have to apply pressure on local government agencies that are holding body camera footage — we like securing justice for people, but this is hard,” Crews said. “It just is something that has to be done.”

While BLM Minnesota continues to seek answers for Azad’s family, Crews said having accessible body camera footage is an important tool in identifying dangerous policing and holding officers accountable when it occurs.

“The government or government officials aren’t necessarily more informed, I think the community itself is more informed,” Crews said. “We have an educated population [in Minnesota] that has zero tolerance for police misconduct.”

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