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Austin shooting highlights lack of police body cameras in many parts of Minnesota

The Austin police department was researching the technology before an officer fatally shot Kokou Christopher Fiafonou in December.

Protesters Rally in Austin for Kokou Christopher Fiafonou
A rally takes place outside the Mower County Law Enforcement Center on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in Austin, Minnesota, in response to the death of 38-year-old Kokou Christopher Fiafonou, who was killed on Dec. 23 by Austin Police officer Zachary Gast after a more than 24-hour standoff.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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AUSTIN — When an Austin police officer killed Kokou Christopher Fiafonou in late December, parts of the shooting were captured on squad-car video that has yet to be publicly released.

There does not appear to be footage of the entire episode, in which officers say Fiafonou confronted police with a knife but Fiafonou’s family contends he was doing nothing wrong when killed.

There might be more video if the 34-officer Austin Police Department had body-worn cameras . But they don’t, meaning there is less clarity about a case that has drawn protests in the city of 26,000 people.

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Body-worn cameras, or the lack of them, have played key roles in several high-profile Minnesota cases where police have killed or injured someone. Experts say the cameras don’t always produce consensus about controversial incidents, but they do tend to reduce complaints against officers and are generally supported by the public and police.

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Austin’s police chief and mayor said they had been pursuing body cameras for officers before the shooting, but a few hurdles have made adopting the technology a lengthy process.

Austin is not alone, and the incident underscores that while body cameras have become common in larger cities and counties in the state, many smaller departments around Minnesota have yet to adopt the technology.

A contested shooting

Austin police said they first encountered Fiafonou, who is Black, on Dec. 22, after officers were notified he was walking in traffic holding a knife. According to a department news release , police followed Fiafonou, who had a machete, into an apartment complex. There, officers used stun guns in an unsuccessful effort to subdue him. Over the next 24 hours, police say they tried to negotiate with Fiafonou, who had threatened to hurt other people, and also used pepper spray and foam bullets to try to apprehend him.

Kokou "Christopher" Fiafonou
Kokou "Christopher" Fiafonou
Contributed

About 9:30 p.m. Dec. 23, when “police presence was drawn down,” Fiafonou left the building and walked to a gas station, where he “confronted” officers in the parking lot while armed with a knife, the news release says. Officer Zachary Gast fatally shot the 38-year-old Fiafonou, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Fiafonou’s family, and Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, have said police harassed the man who they described as having a mental health crisis, according to the Austin Daily Herald and an online fundraiser for the family . The fundraiser, organized by Gross, says the family’s home was “destroyed by tear gas and other projectiles after police blew out all of the windows.”

Gross, who could not be reached for comment, and Fiafonou’s family have also called for any video of the incident to be released. They had initially asked for body camera footage, though there was none.

Protesters Rally in Austin for Kokou Christopher Fiafonou
A makeshift memorial is made on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, outside the Kwik Trip where 38-year-old Kokou Christopher Fiafonou was killed on Dec. 23 by Austin Police officer Zachary Gast in Austin, Minnesota.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Why Austin doesn’t have body cameras — yet

In an interview Friday, Austin police chief David McKichan said he had already wanted body cameras for officers and the department had been actively researching how to buy and implement them.

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McKichan said around 2014 the department started using high-definition cameras in squad cars and linked them to wireless microphones to get on-scene audio.

“Of course the next natural step is body cameras,” he said.

The chief said the mayor and city council support body cameras, Austin and the police department just need to figure out the logistics of implementing them, and how to pay for the initial costs of buying the equipment and ongoing costs like storing data and hiring an administrative assistant to help handle the footage. McKichan said the cost of an assistant would likely be around $80,000 or more per year, and the initial equipment and infrastructure could be $160,000, a significant cost for a small department.

Austin’s proposed general fund budget for 2022 was roughly $19 million, with police in line for about $5.8 million. Another $190,000 in a capital investment plan is also earmarked for upgrading police equipment.

Protesters Rally in Austin for Kokou Christopher Fiafonou
Dorothy Gales, fiance of 38-year-old Kokou Christopher Fiafonou, who was killed on Dec. 23 by Austin Police officer Zachary Gast, leads a chant on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, outside the Kwik Trip where Fiafonou was killed in Austin, Minnesota.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

McKichan has been chief for about three years, but with the Austin police department since 1997.

He said that over the years, the agency has improved its technology, but that the department didn’t want to be an early adopter of body cameras in case it wasn’t effective considering the costs.

“It’s something I think we’re able to do,” McKichan said about paying for body cameras. “But you also can’t make a mistake when you’re talking about that type of money. And try to come back three, four years later and say, ‘Hey, this system is maybe not doing what we want, we might need something else.’”

Austin Mayor Steve King said the city also is hoping to pay for an $80 million sewage treatment plant upgrade, so while body cameras are a priority, they have other critical needs to take care of.

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Still, King said the biggest barrier to body cameras was “the mechanics of getting it in place,” rather than the price.

The county sheriff’s department shares server, dispatch and record management space with the city, meaning they want to coordinate when adopting body camera policy.

Protesters Rally in Austin for Kokou Christopher Fiafonou
Dorothy Gales, fiance of 38-year-old Kokou Christopher Fiafonou, who was killed on Dec. 23 by Austin Police officer Zachary Gast, leads a chant on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, outside the Kwik Trip where Fiafonou was killed in Austin, Minnesota.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

King said based on their budgeting process, the department could get body cameras approved by the end of 2022 or at some point in 2023.

“It’s not any more urgent than it was prior to that incident. It was a priority within one or two of anything for about a year,” King said. “At this point, it just probably helps the cause for the taxpayer to realize that yes we’re going to bear this cost.

“It just seems to be the right thing to do for the officers and the right thing to do with the community.”

Legislature failed to pass initiative to help departments pay for cameras

A survey of municipal police departments done by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association released in July found use of body cameras has nearly doubled among the agencies since a previous survey, five years earlier. Still, of 214 chiefs who responded, 95 said they don’t have body cameras. Of those 95 departments, more than 65 percent said cost was the main reason.

There has been some federal grant money for body-worn cameras , especially for smaller, rural and tribal departments. And last year, state legislators nearly approved a $1 million grant program to help pay for body cameras, particularly among departments outside of the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. Yet the initiative was was dropped because the majority-DFL House, but not the Republican-controlled Senate, wanted regulations attached to the money requiring things like allowing the family of someone killed by police to view footage within 48 hours under most circumstances .

Walker Orenstein reports on the Legislature for MinnPost, with a focus on covering issues affecting Greater Minnesota. MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for people who care about Minnesota. This story has been edited for length.

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