See more of the story

In his first major public safety initiative since being elected Hennepin County sheriff last November, David Hutchinson is asking the County Board for $5 million for body cameras and video storage.

Hutchinson wants to equip 148 deputies with cameras by the end of the year, and another 302 deputies by 2021. The cameras would be provided to deputies who patrol the streets, serve warrants, transport inmates and work in the jail and courthouse.

The board had planned to vote on the proposal Tuesday, but commissioners wanted two more weeks to make sure that Hutchinson’s proposed camera policy language was appropriate and that there were no conflicts of interest with the company supplying the equipment.

“We need this technology,” Hutchinson told the board. “Cameras enhance safety for our deputies and the public. I can’t advocate enough for them.”

If the County Board approves, the Minnesota State Patrol would be the only large law enforcement agency in the state without body cameras. The patrol has had video systems in every squad car for about 15 years, which capture the vast majority of interactions that happen on the side of the road, said Col. Matt Langer, chief of the State Patrol.

“The State Patrol recognizes the value of body-worn cameras to capture situations that might not be within the field of view of the squad camera,” he said. “Like many agencies, the State Patrol has been researching body cameras and continuing toward implementation in the future once plans for the necessary resources and technology implementation on a statewide level are addressed.”

Last week, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office announced it would equip 400 deputies and corrections officers with body cameras by the end of the year. Recently released body-camera footage showed a knife-wielding man repeatedly charging St. Paul officer Steven Mattson as Mattson ordered him to drop the weapon before firing two fatal shots. Sheriff Bob Fletcher said the footage was critical in determining whether the officer was justified in using deadly force.

Until this week, there had been no significant movement toward body-camera use by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office since former Sheriff Rich Stanek, Hutchinson’s predecessor, scuttled a pilot program in 2017 due to budget constraints. He had received $80,000 from the board to provide cameras for 35 members on the SWAT team.

Stanek first went to the board to present his proposal for body cameras in January 2016, with the intent of moving slowly and methodically. Not many agencies then were using cameras, so he said he wanted to research costs, get public and law enforcement input and gauge deputies’ willingness to wear the devices.

Though the Hennepin County Board delayed this week’s vote, none of the commissioners voiced opposition to Hutchinson’s request. Commissioner Jan Callison was most concerned about developing a camera-use policy for jail-detention deputies. Workhouse deputies in Plymouth also will have cameras.

‘A big move’

The use of body-camera footage, and the question of when to publicly release footage of a significant incident, has been a controversial issue for several years. The Minneapolis Police Department revised its body-camera policy after the July 2017 death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who was fatally shot by an officer who hadn’t turned on his camera. City policy now requires officers to turn on body cameras when responding to any call, traffic stop or self-initiated activity.

Under the policy designed to accompany the new cameras, Maj. Jeff Storms of the Sheriff’s Office said deputies will be required to activate the equipment if they draw their gun or Taser. They will be able to activate the camera manually or when they switch on squad-car lights, he said.

Since the County Board hadn’t received a camera proposal and policy for more than two years, several commissioners wanted assurance that the new policy wasn’t obsolete. Storms said the policy had been updated and incorporated the best practices from law enforcement agencies across the United States.

Callison asked for at least a “skeleton understanding” of the camera policy for detention deputies before the board vote in two weeks. “We need to do our best work upfront and not when something goes wrong,” she said.

Commissioners Mike Opat and Angela Conley asked Storms to check if the county has any conflicts with Axon Enterprise Inc., the company that would sell the cameras, Taser stun guns and video-management software to the Sheriff’s Office.

Dr. Jeffrey Ho, head of emergency services at the county’s safety-net hospital, HCMC, had worked as a paid consultant and medical director for Axon until a series of Star Tribune stories this year.

County Administrator David Hough said he would confirm that there wasn’t any conflict of interest.

“The camera purchase is a big move and a solid move,” said Opat. “Video has helped prevent decisions made on conjecture and hysteria.”

David Chanen • 612-673-4465