When uniformed Grand Forks Police Department officers interact with the public, they can turn their body cameras on or off at their discretion – but GFPD Lt. Derik Zimmel said he rarely, if ever, goes looking for footage of an incident only to find it doesn't exist.
In the years since the department adopted the technology around 2014, he said no Grand Forks officer has ever been investigated for improperly turning off a camera.
The same is true in the East Grand Forks Police Department, which has used body cams since 2018. Very rarely is an incident not recorded, said Police Chief Mike Hedlund. When it does happen, it's generally because the camera's battery died at the end of a 12-hour shift, or because an officer thought it was turned on but mistakenly did activate it while rushing to an incident.
If an officer was found to be intentionally not recording incidents, Hedlund said it would trigger an internal investigation that could result in disciplinary action, up to termination.
As the trial for Derek Chauvin wrapped up this week in Minneapolis, there has been renewed attention to body camera footage. Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was found guilty on Tuesday, April 20, of kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, in an improper use of force that resulted in Floyd's death.
Hedlund said that body cameras aren't perfect, but they have come to be a significant benefit, both for officers and for the community at large.
"I mean, it's one view of something," Hedlund said. "The officer could be looking with their face one direction, and their body could be pointed in a different direction, so the camera isn't going to get everything the officer is looking at, but it's giving you a better idea, obviously, than if he didn't have it all. It's at least going to give me some documentation of these situations."
The Grand Forks and East Grand Forks departments differ slightly in their approach to body cam usage. In Grand Forks, department policy outlines when cameras should and should not be used, but officers' decision as to when to activate their cameras is largely up to their own best discretion, Zimmel said. On the East Grand Forks side, officer discretion has largely been taken out of the equation, Hedlund said.
According to Grand Forks police policy, body cameras should be activated to record all traffic and pedestrian contacts, all crimes in progress and other enforcement actions, and any other situation the officer believes should be recorded.
Body cameras may be deactivated at the officer's discretion to protect the dignity of others, during non-work-related personal time such as break periods, and to protect conversations with other employees who are unaware they are being recorded while they are not performing official duties. Cameras also may be turned off, unless the footage is considered to be evidence, when recording victims of sex offenses, confidential informants, undercover officers, innocent bystanders, and places where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists.
Unlike GFPD's policy, East Grand Forks' Police Department does not detail when a camera may be turned off – only when it is expected to be on, and when it is prohibited from running, such as in medical facilities, during body searches when the subject is asked to display any private areas, or during casual, informal interactions with the public that serve no evidentiary purpose, to name a few.
Policies in both communities are continuously evaluated and updated to reflect best practices, Zimmel and Hedlund said.
According to Lt. Dwight Love, who oversees the Grand Forks Police Department body camera program, the department has 60 cameras. All uniformed officers are issued a body camera to wear during their shift, but the cameras are also available for detectives to use when they wish.
Camera footage is uploaded into an evidence-storage system. Then, all footage that is determined to be of minimal interest in any potential criminal or civil trial is held for up to 30 days before being purged from the system to make space for more files. Footage that does depict actions that could become relevant in trial are held for up to a year or longer.
On a recent Monday, there were about 10,300 videos from body cameras and dashboard cameras stored in the system, Love said. He estimated they make up some 5,300 hours of video.
In East Grand Forks, per Minnesota state statute, footage from inactive cases is held for 90 days, and footage showing officer use of force or actions referenced in a formal complaint is held for one year. In those latter situations, and in other serious circumstances like large crime scenes and officer-involved crashes, it's department policy for a supervisor to respond to the scene to ensure body camera footage is properly documented.
Like any public record, anyone may request the footage from their encounter with police, although Zimmel cautioned that because the videos would be subject to redaction, such requests could quickly become pricey. He added that because of the record retention schedule, any requests should be made in a timely manner.
Prior to releasing the footage, department staff would need to review the video minute-by-minute to ensure nothing confidential is released, Zimmel said.
"It's not just the encounter with the person, it's anything else that that camera captures, including extraneous radio traffic," he said. "Maybe panning and a juvenile is seen in the background, or if you're going into somebody's house or on a traffic crash scene and someone's receiving medical treatment. All of those things need to be redacted under state law. So, it can get fairly complex, and at times expensive."
Both Zimmel and Hedlund agreed that officers have come to rely on body cams, and they don't see them going away anytime soon. Zimmel noted that since GFPD adopted the cameras, the number of outside complaints against officers has gone down, and officers often are exonerated by body cam footage in complaints that are made.
"I think officers find it to be a bit of a safety net for them," Zimmel said. "It's going to show our officers going out there, engaging with the public in ways that we expect them to, and performing the job that they're supposed to be performing. I think officers are far more reluctant to go out on the street without an active body cam, at this point. ...
"I think we'd have a fight on our hands if we try to get rid of them at this point."