WASHINGTON – The two sheriff’s deputies who shot and killed a Black man while assigned to a U.S. Marshals Service fugitive task force had been told they could not use their body-worn cameras, despite a change in Justice Department policy to allow cameras months before the shooting.
The shooting of Winston Boogie Smith Jr. last week has sparked nights of protests in Minneapolis — a city still reeling from the death of George Floyd at the hands of police — and is raising questions about the implementation of a Justice Department policy change that shifted away from its longstanding rule prohibiting the tool.
Last October, the Justice Department formalized a new policy to allow local officers to wear body cameras during joint operations, reversing a policy that had strained its relationship with some law enforcement agencies. They sent guidance out to all U.S. Marshals across the country and opened an office dedicated to supporting the effort. The issue had previously hit such a boiling point that Atlanta’s police chief had withdrawn city police officers from federal task forces over the issue.
In February, the Marshals Service, which has a network of fugitive task forces nationwide with local law enforcement, sent guidance to state and local officials about how they could equip their officers with cameras and the necessary paperwork allowing the footage, according to a Justice Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. The process, though, can take months to train officers on federal policy and because of the variety of cameras used by police departments in the U.S. and the complexity of data collection.
In Minnesota, federal officials began in February contacting agencies that had already dropped out of the task force over the issue to try to bring them back aboard, the Justice Department official said. Some agencies said they were still told cameras weren't allowed, or they weren't made aware of the complex legal process required to actually allow task force officers to wear the cameras. Under the new rule, local law enforcement agencies could equip their officers with body cameras, though they need to sign an amendment to the legal paperwork between the agency and the Marshals Service.
Members of the federal fugitive task force in Minnesota were trying to apprehend Smith last week on a warrant for a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The Marshals Service said Smith was in a parked car at the time and then “produced a handgun” before two sheriff’s deputies on the task force opened fire. Later, the state agency investigating the shooting said evidence showed Smith also fired his gun.
In the wake of the shooting, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco has ordered Justice Department law enforcement officers to wear body cameras when making planned arrests or serving search warrants. The directive orders the heads of the Marshals Service, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to develop body-worn camera policies within 30 days.
But even as Justice makes a major policy shift to bring federal agents a tool that has been common for years with most local police agencies, there is still confusion about the process for local task force officers -- and the length of time it will take to actually allow them to be worn in the field.
In Minnesota, the task force members who fired at Smith were sheriff's deputies from Ramsey and Hennepin counties. Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher decided to pull his deputies from the task force on Monday, saying he would remain off the federal task force “until body cameras are actually authorized."
His office said deputies were told they could wear body cameras on Friday, a day after the shooting. He then signed an amended memorandum that would allow the deputies to wear the cameras, but said he received a call Monday from the U.S. Marshal in Minnesota, Ramona Dohman, telling him they still couldn’t.
“It could take a while for this to get approved … so, your deputies still won’t be allowed to use their body cameras… until the onboarding process has gone on,” Fletcher said Dohman told him in a voicemail. The sheriff's office said five deputies assigned to the task force had been issued body cameras but were told they could not use them during task force work.
Even after the memo has been signed, there could be a delay for local officers to be able to use the cameras because the Marshals Service needs to train both local and federal officials in the district on their use and the rules surrounding what can be recorded during federal operations, the Justice Department official said.
Fletcher said despite regular requests from local law officers, the Marshals Service has repeatedly said they were working on the issue. He said that as recently as last month, federal representatives told local law enforcement that the cameras were still not allowed.
The day after Smith was fatally shot by officers, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension – the agency leading the investigation – said in a statement that the U.S. Marshals Service “currently does not allow the use of body cameras for officers serving on its North Star Fugitive Task Force.” But the U.S. Marshals Service said that while deputy marshals do not yet wear body cameras, the Justice Department permits state, local and tribal task force officers to do so.
Smith’s family members and activists have called for transparency, demanding to see any footage that exists, though officials have said there is none.
The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, where the other deputy involved in the shooting works, said it had issued the deputy a body camera but sheriff’s officials were told it could not be used while the deputy was working on task force operations. Sheriff’s officials were also told that the new policy “remains in the implementation phase,” nearly eight months after it was announced, and has “not yet been implemented” on the task force.
The issue has kept some local departments off task forces altogether. John Elder, the spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department, said that agency does not participate in any task forces where officers are not allowed to use their body cameras.
St. Paul police officers stopped participating in the fugitive task force in 2019. St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell sent a letter to the local U.S. Marshals Service in 2018 saying he was “unwavering” in his decision to require all St. Paul police officers to use body cameras while on duty – even if they are on a federal task force. In 2019, the U.S. Marshals Service responded to Axtell, saying in a letter that if the St. Paul department held firm on its decision to require cameras, those officers would be removed from the task force.
Since then, Axtell has had some conversations with federal officials about the use of body worn cameras by task force officers and has raised concern about language that gives DOJ control over the release of footage. He said he'd be willing to reengage in federal task forces if that issue is worked out.
“To me, I was not willing to give up that necessary tool of transparency,” he said. “They wanted to have final say in when and if the video could be released to the public."
Axtell has been an advocate for federal agencies using body cameras for years, and says he's grateful the Biden administration is taking on the issue, which he says they inherited. He called the DOJ's new order that federal officers conducting search warrants and takedowns must wear the cameras a “seismic shift."
“I couldn’t be more happy to hear of this seismic shift in the DOJ approach to body worn cameras,” he said.
Forliti reported from Minneapolis.