On Saturday afternoon, two Minneapolis Police officers shot and killed Thurman Blevins, a 31-year-old Black man, on the Northside of Minneapolis. Few facts are known, and diverging accounts from law enforcement and community members illustrate the importance of body-worn cameras a fact witness and accountability tool.
But until recently, it’s unlikely either officer would have had their body camera turned on.
Last summer, KSTP-TV reported—based on public records—that Minneapolis police officers assigned body cameras were uploading on average a mere 5.2 to 6.1 hours of body camera footage over the course of a month. A police spokesperson promised to look into the low usage numbers, but it didn’t happen soon enough. Just three days after KSTP’s report aired, a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Justine Damond in a south Minneapolis alleyway. The officers both had body cameras but had failed to turn them on. Their squad car’s dashcam, too, was never activated. Officer Mohamed Noor was charged earlier this year with murder and manslaughter in that case.
In the wake of the Damond shooting, Minneapolis Police implemented a new body camera policy. It helped, but an audit required by state law continued to reveal low usage statistics. Body cameras became a frequently-discussed campaign issue in the municipal election, and in April, newly-elected Mayor Jacob Frey implemented a new policy, which added penalties—such as suspension or termination—in the event officers failed to activate, or if they deactivated, their body cameras during use of force incidents.
Perhaps it worked.
This weekend, Mayor Frey confirmed rather quickly that both officers involved in killing Blevins had body cameras activated during the incident. But while cameras might have been rolling, the public’s ability to see the video is an entirely different matter.
State law declares that body camera video depicting officers’ use of force resulting in great bodily harm is public. But law enforcement considers such footage to be “active investigative data” not subject to immediate release. Historically, that position has blocked public disclosure of video footage and important factual details until the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA)—the state agency tasked with investigating officer-committed shootings—completes their investigation and a prosecutor makes a charging determination.
The investigative process can take a long time. In the 2015 police shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, video footage was not released until four-and-a-half months after Clark’s death, after Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman had declined charges against the officers involved. In the 2016 police shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., dashcam video footage was withheld from public release until Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter and firearms charges in the case, a process that took 11 months. And in the Damond case, criminal charges against Officer Noor—through dismissal or verdict—are unlikely to happen until 2019.
These are long delays for a community demanding facts and accountability, and an even more excruciating wait for family members of victims wanting answers and closure.
This time, the public demand for immediate release of body camera footage has been thunderous. All 13 Minneapolis City Council members signed onto a statement expressing that “expediency and integrity are key to transparency and building trust,” asking for the BCA to release body camera footage “as soon as legally possible.”
But the video footage was not the BCA’s—it was the City’s—and release of the footage was already legally possible.
Several City Council members internally explored whether the Council had the power to compel the release of the footage, and had planned to draft a staff direction aimed at pushing the City to release the video, a City staffer said.
With the pressure of the public, reporters, and other elected officials, along with his own desire for transparency, Mayor Frey announced he would order the release of body camera footage after two conditions had been met.
First, Frey wanted to consult with Blevins’ family. At a Minneapolis City Council meeting on Wednesday afternoon, Blevins’ cousin said she did not want to see the video depicting Blevins’ death, and that she did not think the video would capture the entire incident. Another family member said the video footage would provide closure, and that she was particularly interested in whether police had escalated or de-escalated the situation.
Second, Frey wanted to ensure that the BCA had completed key witness interviews. The BCA has said in previous incidents that withholding video and factual detail is necessary to avoid tainting witness statements, and Mayor Frey said in a statement that such a desire for transparency must be balanced with the need for a fair and complete investigation.
While protecting the integrity of an investigation might sound reasonable, officials’ selective release of facts—including specific details investigators might desire witnesses to refute or corroborate—does not necessarily comport with that aim.
The evening of the shooting, Mayor Frey issued a statement that Blevins was armed, describing the visual appearance of the firearm. The following day, the BCA released a detailed description of events leading up to the shooting, stating that officers observed Blevins sitting with a woman on a curb at a particular intersection, that he fled on foot when officers arrived, that officers pursued him, and that he was carrying a “black and silver gun.”
That evening, Lt. Bob Kroll, President of the Minneapolis Police union, held a press conference. He, too, offered facts and narrative suggestions about the shooting. “The officers were subjected to a threat,” said Kroll, “There were numerous commands to drop the firearm. The suspect did not comply with these commands.” Kroll went on to confirm the suspect matched the description given in 9-1-1 calls, and suggested Blevins was not facing away from officers at the time of the shooting.
If witnesses learning of substantive fact-based detail risked tainting their statements, the thought of releasing some of those very facts while insisting that other facts must remain withheld, was in conflict with that goal.
Civil rights attorney Nekima Levy-Pounds called Mayor Frey’s desire for witnesses to be interviewed prior to the release of body camera footage an example of “hypocrisy and double standards” in a Facebook post, pointing out that state law allows officers to review body camera footage before giving statements to investigators. “So officers get an opportunity to get their stories straight before they go on record,” said Levy-Pounds, “How can an investigation possibly retain integrity and transparency when cops have the chance to review body camera footage before BCA interviews, but witnesses don’t?”
Even so, the delay for witness statements might not be too long, suggested a City Hall staff member, who had heard the video could be released as soon as next week. Mayor Frey and Governor Mark Dayton spoke about the release of the body camera footage, according to three City Hall staffers, though it was not immediately clear if the discussion was focused on expediting witness interviews or targeting a video release date.
There is also the possibility that officials are less resistant to release of the video footage in this case, because the footage might clear officers of wrongdoing. “It’s our belief that body camera will reveal what happened,” said Lt. Kroll, who said he had not seen the footage, but had spoken with the officers and their attorneys. Mayor Frey had also expressed to City staff that he felt the investigation could occur quickly, though he declined to directly confirm whether he had or had not seen the body camera footage. Phillipe Cunningham, Council Member for Ward 4, where the shooting occurred, had not seen the video.
Regardless of the content of the video or the motivations for speed of release, Mayor Frey’s decision to release the video breaks from a tradition of withholding such footage indefinitely, setting a precedent that elected officials legally empowered to release data can do so in response to community demand.
A spokesperson for the BCA did not respond when asked if the agency had any response to, or concern with, Mayor Frey’s intention to release the video early. The BCA had completed most key interviews as of Wednesday afternoon, Frey said.
“We’re at a pivotal point in time, and I believe transparency is crucial to how we move forward as a society,” said Corydon Nilsson, the founder of a police accountability group at a City Council meeting Wednesday afternoon, “I urge the Mayor, this Council, the County Attorney, and the BCA to expedite this process. We cannot continue to uphold the status quo.”