Years of experience with body cameras a plus, police chief says

Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke, pictured with Capt. Tanya Schwartz, showed the shirt-mounted body camera officers use. (Photo by John Gessner)

Burnsville’s practices more evolved than most

After an officer’s fatal shooting of Justine Damond last month, Minneapolis’ acting police chief announced a policy requiring cops to activate their body cameras when responding to calls or initiating their own actions.

The policy follows the shooting of Damond, an unarmed 911 caller, by an officer whose camera wasn’t on. Nor was his partner’s. Minneapolis police have used body cameras for less than a year.

In Burnsville, which pioneered the use of body cameras seven years ago, they’ve become part of police culture, along with expectations for their use.

“Quite frankly, I think we have a culture here now where we know there are officers — because they’ve told us — they don’t want to be the one on a call to have to explain why the camera was not on,” Police Chief Eric Gieseke said in an interview this week. “They don’t want to be that person.”

The shooting of Damond, 40, by officer Mohamed Noor at the window of his squad car wasn’t captured on body camera video or the car’s dashboard camera, which also wasn’t running.

Gieseke said he wouldn’t second-guess another police agency where the case remains under investigation.

“With that said,” he added, “our cameras routinely are activated more than they’re required to be on. I think the reason for that is our experience over the last seven years. Officers have learned that it’s better to have the video footage than to not have it, and it’s very infrequent that we come across a case where we wish we had footage.”

Burnsville was Minnesota’s first department to use body cameras and the nation’s third, the chief said.

Its body camera policy, posted on the Police Department website, states that officers “should” activate their camera “any time the member believes it would be appropriate or valuable to record an incident.”

The policy states cameras “should be” activated during “all enforcement and investigative contacts”; during traffic stops including traffic violations, stranded-motorist assistance and “all-crime interdiction stops”; during self-initiated activity that would normally prompt an officer to call police dispatch; and during any other contact “that becomes adversarial after the initial contact in a situation that would not otherwise require recording.”

The policy also gives officers discretion to temporarily halt recording to safeguard people’s privacy. It exempts camera use during officer break times and discussions with informants or undercover officers.

Though the policy is not “100 percent mandatory” on body camera use, the phrase “should be” is understood as “generally expected,” Gieseke said.

Since it began using cameras, the department has audited the frequency of their use as measured by the number of videos recorded, he said. Officials are satisfied with the results, he said.

“There shouldn’t be a large gap,” Gieseke said. “So if you’re handling 100 calls, you might have 70 or 80 videos. If you’ve got five or 10, clearly we have a problem.”

The department’s size, with 75 sworn officers including department leaders, has a comfortable “span of control” that allows sergeants to guide officers in camera use, Gieseke said.

The camera policy is a “living document” in its ninth of 10th iteration, he said.

In the beginning, some experienced officers pushed back against body cameras, Gieseke said. Since 2010 cameras have gradually become part of the uniform for all front-line officers.

“We had a lot of concerns about what would happen if the officers were doing something on the tape, or made a mistake — are they going to be micromanaged to the point where they can’t do their jobs? We’ve demonstrated that hasn’t been the case,” Gieseke said.

A recent case in which cameras proved their worth was the fatal shooting last Nov. 7 at the Dollar Tree store on Aldrich Avenue, police Capt. Tanya Schwartz said.

The first responding officer’s camera captured the scene of an active shooting, she said. More officers with more cameras provided views of “a lot of moving parts” of the scene — evidence valuable to prosecutors, Schwartz said. The shooter pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder and was sentenced to 32 years in prison.

“That’s a big case where that was really valuable, but it’s also valuable for everyday cases,” Schwartz said. “We review all of the body camera footage for use-of-force incidents, too. That’s kind of like a built-in auditing system. We’ve been doing that since the beginning.”

But body cameras don’t capture everything. Burnsville has used a few models. Most recently, the department switched from a head-mounted camera to a wireless chest-mounted model, which doesn’t take in all that an officer observes. The department also eliminated its dashboard cameras when it began using the headsets and is now considering restoring the dash cams, Schwartz said.

A body camera “is not the panacea for all of law enforcement’s challenges,” Gieseke said, “but it’s certainly a piece of the puzzle to get us where we want to be as a profession.”