A wide-ranging discussion on the use of deadly force by Minnesota police officers drew strong opinions and emotion at an all-day hearing Thursday at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
A 16-member working group, co-chaired by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, gathered for its third session since its launch in July.
The panel, consisting of a diverse group of officials and activists, is looking to form recommendations for state and local policies, legislation, training requirements, officer wellness and community healing in response to the ongoing public debate over a number of high-profile police shootings and other critical incidents.
The group appeared to find widespread consensus on at least a few matters, including the effectiveness of body cameras for officers. But even then, equipping the approximately 13,000 active police officers in the 425 law enforcement agencies across the state wouldn't be easy, experts testified.
"It isn't a matter of just buying equipment and storing it," said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, a member of the statewide group. "The additional downstream effect is so huge financially. We're hurting just trying to keep up with the data and body camera evidence from the Duluth Police Department."
Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen said he'd like to adopt cameras for his department, but it's one of the smallest in the state with only 14 members. The cost of data retention, redaction for public requests and future replacement, among other expenses, is simply too cost prohibitive, he said.
"From what I've studied, the initial startup cost is probably the least of our concerns," Eliasen told the panel.
Clarence Castile, uncle of shooting victim Philando Castile and a member of the working group, said the benefits greatly outweigh the costs. In that vein, Ellison pointed to Minneapolis' $20 million settlement with the family of Justine Damond, who was fatally shot in July 2017. Castile suggested the group could consider proposing legislation requiring body cameras for officers.
"In 2016, my nephew was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer, and he did not have a body camera," Castile said. "The reason that case was lost is because the jury did not have his perception when he looked in the car. If he would've had a body cam on, the perception would've been there and the case probably would've turned out differently."
Irene Kao, intergovernmental relations counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities, said many more jurisdictions would likely be willing to adopt cameras, but said funding would likely need to be attached.
"If you alleviated any particular mandate coming from the state — if there were financial resources that would come along with it — then that would make sense," Kao said. "In the meantime, it is challenging if there is ever a requirement from the state that doesn't have that support. Then we have local entities struggling to figure out how to fund those things."
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who is looking to hire eight additional staffers to handle video, warned of the mounting costs: "For any agencies that end up getting body-worn cameras, you got 'em for life. Try to take them back, it ain't gonna work."
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which investigates most police shootings in the state, came under fire from some critics for its handling of cases — particularly over interviews of the involved officers, which may occur days after the incident.
BCA Superintendent Drew Evans defended his agency's work, noting officers cannot be compelled to give statements. He also said they typically are asked to give a statement, then view any body camera footage and provide clarification — though some departments allow their officers to view the video first.
Chara Blanch, a Twin Cities resident, told the panel that her father and grandfather were both law enforcement officials. Her father even retired from the BCA. But she's not content to have them investigate other officers.
"We cannot have police policing themselves," Blanch said. "It simply is impossible for police officers to hold each other accountable."
Other panel members and community activists suggested some form of independent commission to evaluate shootings, though it's unclear how that would work. Minnesota has 87 counties, which elected county attorneys and sheriffs in each.
Ashley Quinones' husband, Brian Quinones, was fatally shot by police last month. Five Edina and Richfield officers fired their weapons in the incident that remains under investigation.
Ashley Quinones said she has struggled to get basic updates on the case — though Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who attended Thursday's hearing, promised to have news soon and gave her a business card to stay in touch.
"I don't feel safe," Quinones told the working group. "I fear for the day I get pulled over by the exact people that murdered my husband. What if my son's in the car? It's really hard to respect authority when there has been zero respect given to us."
In one tense exchange, Ellison and Fred Bruno, an attorney who represents cops through union funds, sparred over the protocols for officers after a shooting.
"If you're going to treat our clients like criminals, we're going to defend them like criminals, and you may not like it," Bruno said in response to question from the attorney general on if and how officers should be treated differently in investigations.
Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said there is a misconception that officers are trigger-happy and get a "paid vacation" after a shooting.
"Officers experience grief, emotion, depression because of these incidents," Peters said. "I want people to understand that."
Hiring and training
Christy Lopez, a former official in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, oversaw investigations into policing in numerous cities, including Ferguson, Mo. She said some states have adopted more "common sense" laws governing police shootings, noting officers in Minnesota can kill without "any imminent threat of injury or death."
"Right now, there is no motivation for departments to really train officers to take the steps before that final moment, to prevent them from getting into the situation where they have no choice but to use deadly force," she said, suggesting a higher standard of law would lead to better use of tools other than firearms.
Nate Gove, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, said his agency has revoked the licenses of 20 officers, mostly for sexual misconduct or theft, and disciplined many others since he assumed the role five years ago.
Gove said Minnesota has always had high standards for policing, becoming the first state with occupational licensing and remaining the only state that requires a two-year degree for officers, but acknowledged that recruiting candidates, particularly minorities, to the profession has been a challenge in recent years.
Chris Burbank, a former Salt Lake City police chief who now serves as vice president of the Center for Policing Equity, said state and national databases on police shootings are woefully inadequate, with news organizations generally providing the best data.
But Burbank said data shows minorities are disproportionately arrested and cited for crimes, and indicated that better recruiting is needed to make police forces better reflect their communities.
"Let's go out and recruit these people just like Google does," he said. "Does that mean we're going to pay some more money? Absolutely. Does that mean we're going to require education? Yes. But I honestly think that means we're going to change the outcome of policing in the long run. Because if we want to do this it's going to take something dramatic."
The working group plans to hold at least one more public hearing, tentatively scheduled for January in the Twin Cities, before deliberating and issuing a final report.