Cops in Minneapolis Can No Longer Turn Off Body Cameras Whenever They Want

Police often turn off the cameras for private conversations or to protect witnesses’ privacy and safety. But some abuse their discretion.
February 3, 2021, 6:14pm
A close-up of a police body-worn camera.
A close-up of a police body-worn camera. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

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The police department involved in the death of George Floyd instituted another major police reform this week: not allowing officers to turn off their body cameras at their own discretion. 

The new policy, which goes into effect on Thursday, will require Minneapolis Police Department officers to leave their body cameras on for the entirety of their interactions with the public. Any private conversations or discussions involving police tactics and performance, however, can be redacted on a case-by-case basis prior to public release, according to a press release from the MPD. Previously, officers only had to have their cameras on when dispatched to a call.

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Officers who fail to follow the new policy can face a 40-hour suspension—and even termination, a Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson told the Star Tribune. 

Only a handful of states—most recently New York—have laws on the books requiring police use body cameras at all, and most departments take a fairly hands-off approach to their use: Officers often turn off the cameras for private conversations or to protect witnesses’ privacy and safety, like in cases of sexual assault. 

But cops in some states have also taken advantage of that freedom. In 2017, Baltimore cops were accused of evidence tampering after they were caught turning off their body cameras before suddenly finding drugs in a car. 

And in 2018, the Sacramento Police Department ended up instituting new body camera rules after the cops responsible for shooting and killing 22-year-old Stephon Clark, who was unarmed and holding a cell phone, muted their body cameras during the incident. The change required officers to leave their cameras on for the entirety of their investigations and encounters with the public—or verbalize otherwise.

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“We’ve seen as a community and as a police force, body camera footage increasingly plays a crucial role in understanding critical events in our community,” Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said in a statement provided to VICE News on Monday. “Accountability is not achieved with any single solution, but changes like this move us toward an even more transparent approach to public safety and building trust with the communities we serve.”

Minneapolis’ new body camera policy is the latest in a series of reforms meant to increase officer accountability following George Floyd’s death last May after an officer knelt on his neck. Footage in the 46-year-old Black man’s death was released from two officers’ body cameras, but the incident kicked off larger reform efforts about brutality and systemic racism in policing. 

Other recent reforms implemented in Minneapolis include requiring police officers to knock and announce their presence during the execution of warrants, an outright ban on chokeholds, and allowing easier public access to police records like body cam footage.

Requiring the capture and release of body camera footage, however, isn’t a silver bullet for police misconduct. Many researchers and advocates have pointed out that recording bad police behavior often doesn’t stop it from happening in the first place—it only holds officers accountable. And in some cases, like during the nationwide Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests after Floyd’s death, body cameras became a privacy concern because of the use of facial recognition software to identify demonstrators. 

But others continue to argue that even the specter of accountability can help. 

“Even if there are restrictions about when footage can be disclosed to the public, knowing that there is this check, or that there is this system to verify what happened is incredibly important to improving accountability and improving community trust,” Lauren Bonds, the legal director for the National Policy Accountability Project told VICE News.