Sheriff’s office seeks input on body-worn cameras

Ahead of plans to have deputies wearing body-worn cameras as soon as July, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office is collecting input from residents about what its body camera policies should be.

State law says at a minimum that law enforcement agencies must accept public comments by mail or electronically ahead of camera implementation. On top of that, the sheriff’s office is holding a series of public meetings this month to discuss policies with residents.

The first meeting was April 30 in Vadnais Heights, one of the seven contract communities that the sheriff’s office patrols — the others are Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Little Canada, North Oaks, Shoreview and White Bear Township.

Sheriff Bob Fletcher and others from his office outnumbered members of the public at the meeting held in the city’s Commons building. Fletcher chalked that up to the north suburbs being relatively crime-free, the positive relationship between the contract communities and law enforcement, and an assumption that deputies already use body cameras.

Elected again as sheriff last year — he held the position for 16 years prior to losing re-election in 2010 — Fletcher ran in 2018 in part on fast implementation of body-worn cameras. He admitted at the meeting that when it comes to using the technology, “the sheriff’s office is a little behind.”

The agency’s body camera policy is modeled on that of the St. Paul Police Department, which, along with the police departments in Minneapolis, Maplewood and Roseville, among others, put cameras into use in recent years. 

Fletcher said that of the state’s roughly 350 law enforcement agencies about one-sixth currently use body cameras, while implementing them is a goal for the rest.

 

On the streets, in the jail

Fletcher said the sheriff’s office policy is slated to say all sworn officers in uniform are required to wear a chest-mounted camera. Apprehension teams and other non-uniformed officials such as detectives could also use the devices. 

The sheriff pointed out that some in his agency already wear their own recoding devices for protection against allegations of misconduct.

Fletcher said personnel would be expected to have their cameras recording upon arrival at any call that necessitates a case number. He also said he appreciates concerns already heard from residents about use of cameras in private homes.

“You know, it’s legitimate. On the days my house is messy, I wouldn’t want to report a burglary either,” he said, adding that other exceptions for camera use could include medical calls and times witnesses wish to speak anonymously or not on the record. 

Minnesota has a single-party consent recording law, meaning that a deputy wouldn’t be required to alert folks they’re being recorded. 

Fletcher said the release and viewing of body camera footage is limited by law to police, the courts and the people in it, though he pointed out that there is a push for quicker release of video that captures when police are involved in shootings. 

There are also standards for how long footage is retained; some incidents are deleted within months, other more serious situations are retained for years.

While there’s now an assumption that law enforcement officials are recording their interactions out in the field, Fletcher said there’s little precedence for the widespread use of body cameras in jails.

He said he plans to outfit all corrections officers at the Ramsey County Jail with cameras, both for their protection and that of the inmates.

“Anyone who has had a loved one in jail has been concerned about how they’re treated,” he said, noting that footage gathered, mainly during disturbances and incidents of use of force, could also protect corrections officers.

Some of the questions that come out of body cameras in the jail aren’t addressed by Minnesota statute. “They’re not covered by state law but we think there’s a need,” Fletcher said.

 

Timeline and costs

With meetings running through May, Fletcher said he hopes to have the county board approve purchasing cameras from manufacturer Axon in June, and have them on deputies a month later.

While the total cost for body cameras in 2019 will be just more than $760,000, per a sheriff’s office document distributed to contract community city managers, the seven municipalities will only be expected to pay a little more than $100,000 between them, since it wasn’t a planned expense.

The seven communities fund 56 sworn deputies and 21 marked squad cars. In total the sheriff’s office is buying 100 body cameras and 40 squad car cams. 

Shoreview is paying the largest portion of the $100,000 bill, nearly $26,000.

Arden Hills, Falcon Heights and Little Canada are all putting in between about $14,000 and $15,000 each. Sheriff’s office officials said the expected costs for the contract communities is slated to increase for 2020.

Little Canada Mayor John Keis, who was at the meeting, said body cameras are “not a hot topic in Little Canada,” though sheriff’s office officials said they expect them to be welcomed by deputies, since recording interactions seems to make everybody — cops and citizens alike — into better actors.

“This is a piece of technology that’s going to be embraced by our staff,” said Undersheriff Jeff Ramacher.

Details about future meetings are to be determined. You can email the sheriff’s office with feedback about body cameras at rcsobwc@co.ramsey.mn.us.

 

–Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. 

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