St. Louis County expects to outfit its sheriff’s office deputies with body-worn cameras by next spring, requiring all uniformed deputies to wear the cameras as part of the uniform. Others from the roster of 106 deputies, including supervisors, investigators and plainclothes officers, will be expected to wear and activate cameras during planned police actions, like traffic stops and search warrants.

“Now is the time to do this,” Sheriff Ross Litman told the St. Louis County Board during a workshop in Pike Lake on Tuesday. “We all know there’s a much larger demand from the public for transparency and accountability on the part of law enforcement agencies, and I think this gets us there.”

Commissioners expressed little hesitation, with Virginia-based Keith Nelson asking the sheriff and county administration to raise the five-year, $790,000 expenditure for approval during the board’s final meetings of 2021 on Tuesday, Nov. 30, in Buhl, and Dec. 14 in Duluth.

“I have zero doubt that if your office is at the point of asking then it’s absolutely necessary,” Nelson responded to Litman. “I also have no doubt your department will carry this out and it will be done right.”

Numerous law enforcement agencies in the county already use body-worn cameras, including the East Range (Hoyt Lakes), Gilbert, Hibbing and Virginia police departments. The Duluth Police Department adopted body-worn cameras in 2014, becoming the first law enforcement agency in the county to do so. Also, the state of Minnesota is in the process of making body-worn cameras mandatory for its State Patrol and Department of Natural Resources officers.

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Litman explained the Sheriff’s Office and county administration have long been evaluating where they stood on the continuum, hesitating, he said, as technology caught up and legislative clarity came to what footage can and cannot be released. Litman said he trusts national data, which indicates body camera footage protects officers from liability, and results in an overall reduction of use-of-force actions.

The Sheriff’s Office has been involved in seven incidents involving the discharge of deputies’ firearms since 2016 — five of which resulted in suspect fatalities, including one suspect who took his own life. Two suspects survived their gunshot wounds.

Only one of those incidents happened to be caught on squad-car cameras, which have been in widespread use by the Sheriff’s Office since starting as a pilot program in 2003.

“We’d like video of those incidents for not only the transparency … but also, obviously, for the criminal case as a form of evidence,” said Wade Rasch, supervising deputy in Duluth, during his presentation to commissioners. “It’s just wonderful evidence to have.”

County Attorney Kim Maki gave her full endorsement, saying, “I am 100% comfortable with what’s being proposed here today.”

Nathaniel Coward
Nathaniel Coward

The News Tribune also spoke with Nathaniel Coward, co-founder of the Chisholm-based Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness. Last year, the group protested against the Sheriff’s Office’s fatal shooting of 19-year-old Estavon Elioff in a wooded area of Mountain Iron on Dec. 5, 2020. In February, then-County Attorney Mark Rubin determined the two deputies involved in that shooting death were justified in their use of force.

“It’s really good for the people’s sake, and also for the police’s sake, too,” Coward said. “I wish it didn’t take this long to actually get the cameras. Every officer should have them, and, hopefully, along with it something that says they must have it turned on or face consequences if they turn the camera off in the middle of a stop. That’s very important.”

According to a proposed policy, deputies would have instances of discretion to deactivate their cameras, but that cameras “remain activated until the supervisor on scene authorizes deactivation” during use-of-force incidents that result in substantial bodily harm.

County Administrator Kevin Gray shared that he, Litman, Undersheriff Jason Lukovsky and a steering committee at the information technology level have been planning for years for the day when the Sheriff’s Office would add body-worn cameras.

“We’re ready to go,” Gray said. “It’s incorporated into the budget, although not specifically (until approved).”

The county’s program would purchase Axon Body 3 cameras, allowing the cameras to interface with Axon Enterprise technologies already used in county squad-car cameras and interviewing rooms. As part of its contract, Axon stores the data and operates the site, evidence.com, where authorities access their photographic, audio and video files.

“It’s just become clear we’d rather have that one spot to be looking for the footage,” Rasch said, when pressed by commissioners about using other body camera vendors.

Litman further explained the county is holding open an existing clerical position to be filled by someone who would manage the data as well as prepare and fulfill video requests.

“We don’t know how much we’ll be inundated with these data requests, and how much work that person is going to be doing,” Rasch said. “But we do know it’s an issue we thus far haven’t had to deal with.”

Redacted data can include taking out certain faces and audio using software that’s grown more user-friendly in recent iterations of the technology.

Litman said personnel within the Sheriff’s Office are as ready for body cameras as they’ve ever been.

“I’m not going to tell you I’ve polled the entire complement of sworn deputies, but my sense is there’s more support for this now than there was previously,” Litman said, adding that a public comment period would commence with board approval.

In his criticism of authorities last December, Coward noted the silence surrounding Elioff’s death — witnessed only by the pursuing deputies.

With body-worn cameras, Coward hoped to give suspects and victims more of a voice.

“We want to help prevent incidents like what happened to Estavon Elioff, where you have just the one side’s word and that’s all you have to go on,” Coward said. “It’s a great idea to keep the police doing what they’re supposed to do. They’ve got the right to kill; why wouldn’t they have cameras?”