St. Paul council OKs pilot program for police body cameras

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St. Paul police officers will begin wearing body cameras next year after the City Council unanimously approved a pilot program for using the devices at its Wednesday meeting.

The measure instructs the police department to develop a plan and a budget for a body camera program this year, with a goal of starting the pilot project in 2016, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports.

The resolution says body cameras have been shown to "protect both police officers and community members by incentivizing both parties to reduce or eliminate the use of force," as well as preserve evidence from crime scenes, according to the Pioneer Press.

Council member Chris Tolbert, the co-sponsor, said having police record their interactions with citizens and suspects will improve the department's credibility and protect officers from false complaints of misconduct, KARE 11 reports.

Police in several Minnesota cities including Minneapolis, Duluth, Rochester and Burnsville have begun using body cameras in the last year or two, and the city of Hastings just approved its own pilot program this week as well.

Along with the perceived benefits of body cameras come concerns over who will be allowed to see the video footage. Each department so far is creating its own guidelines about when the videos should be released to the public or remain private, out of concern for citizens who may be filmed in intimate or embarrassing moments.

Council member Dan Bostrom, a former St. Paul police officer, told MPR News most officers don't object to wearing the body cameras, but he's concerned about releasing footage to the public that may include some disturbing content.

"A squad car vehicle, inside somebody's home or apartment, or ... a homicide scene that's the bloodiest, goriest thing you ever saw in your life, or beaten children, and those other kinds of things," Bostrom said. "Officers walk into those kinds of situations regularly."

A bill introduced in the Minnesota House would make the audio and video from police body cameras private data, which could only be accessed by law enforcement officers and anyone who is a subject in a video.

Opponents of that bill say restricting public access to the video runs counter to what the use of cameras is supposed to achieve: transparency and accountability.

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