Whoa: Twin Cities law-enforcement agency breaks with US Marshals over body-cam issues after shooting

Police insist that Winston Boogie Smith fired first in a Twin Cities deadly shootout last week. The state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which investigates all police shootings, confirmed this the next day. However, no body cam video exists of the confrontation with the US Marshals Service, because their policy forbids the use of such devices, even by local law enforcement agencies assisting them in warrant service and arrests.

After a public dispute over this policy, Ramsey County Sheriff Bib Fletcher broke off the relationship with the Marshals, accusing them of “misleading” public statements:

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office initially said Monday that it would now have its members equipped with body-worn cameras while on these federal assignments. But in a follow-up statement later Monday, Fletcher said the federal agency “has been misleading in their public comments to the media.”

“In Minnesota, the Marshals office has refused to allow us to wear body cameras since the advent of the technology, and any new policy has not been implemented,” he said.

Fletcher said local law enforcement has made many requests to use the technology only to be denied. He said he was denied a request as recently as May 25 for his deputies to use body cameras on the task force, and that U.S. officials said they were “working on the problem.”

U.S. officials said that since February they’ve been phasing in a policy allowing local law enforcement agencies to wear operating body cameras during federal task force operations. But Fletcher said the policy didn’t shift until Friday, the day after Smith was killed.

“However, much to my surprise, I received a voice mail [Monday] from U.S. Marshal Mona Dohman, in which she explains, ‘It could take awhile for this to be approved … so, your deputies still won’t be allowed to use their body cameras … until the onboarding process goes on,’ ” Fletcher said in a statement. “As a result of her voice mail, I have made the decision that Ramsey County Sheriff’s Deputies will not participate with the Marshals Fugitive Task Force until body cameras are actually authorized.”

Why would the USMS oppose the use of body-cam videos by their partner agencies? In fact, why wouldn’t they wear their own body cams? Presumably this might be an issue of deputies’ personal safety, but that same concern applies to local law enforcement personnel, too. And this is not the first time the issue has arisen in the Twin Cities either. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments already refuse to partner with USMS for the same reason, the Star Tribune reports, although it wouldn’t make much difference at the moment:

Police forces for the state’s two largest cities were not part of the Uptown operation. St. Paul officers were pulled in January 2019 from participating in any law enforcement actions by the task force because there was no agreement at the time to allow St. Paul officers to use body-worn or dashboard cameras.

The situation is the same for police officers in Minneapolis, where the shooting of Smith occurred, said department spokesman John Elder. Even if MPD’s officers were cleared to wear body cameras for task force deployment, Elder added, the staff shortage in the department makes it impossible to loan out any personnel.

The use of body cameras allows for much more transparency, a feature rather than a bug in most cases even from the perspective of law enforcement. For every incident in which body-cam video provides evidence of failure (such as the Daunte Wright shooting in nearby Brooklyn Center, as well as George Floyd’s death), there are a number of incidents in which the footage exonerates officers (such as the Ma’khia Bryant shooting).

One thing’s for sure — video would be mighty handy right about now in this latest shooting. There’s a reason that these agencies have started to balk at partnering with the USMS, and had started to balk well before the George Floyd homicide. The police want the ability to tamp down rumors and riots before they begin rather than play catch-up later. It’s curious that the USMS doesn’t see that need as well.