TAMPA — The city of Tampa, which already has 119 security cameras left from the Republican National Convention two years ago, is looking at further expanding its police surveillance capabilities.
The Police Department earlier this year went looking for companies interested in supplying body cameras — a new technology that clips onto collars or caps, allowing officers to record any encounter with the public, from traffic stops to domestic violence disputes.
Police are awaiting information from 10 potential vendors, including TASER International, which provided body cameras to the Orlando Police Department as part of its yearlong study with the University of South Florida's Department of Criminology. No bid has been awarded yet.
Ultimately, the goal is to "start a pilot program where a select group of officers will test the camera models and video retention," police spokeswoman Andrea Davis wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
"We think body cams are a good tool," Davis said, "and we are in the research stage to determine how they can be incorporated in the future."
The department started exploring the possibility of clip-on cameras about a year ago, Davis said. According to the city's request for information, the pilot program involves equipping between 10 and 25 units. If that proves successful, "we would then request funding for a projected rollout over time to a maximum number of between 400 to 600."
Tampa police don't currently deploy or operate body-worn cameras. But the city did spend $2 million from a $50 million federal grant to buy 119 security cameras for 2012's RNC, some of which it monitors during special events such as Gasparilla. And the city has 51 cameras at 21 different intersections to catch red-light runners.
In its request, the city offered an explanation: "In the modern age, a device as simple and common as a cellphone has the ability to capture video of police activities with quality high enough to be of evidentiary value. The Tampa Police Department must take advantage of proven technology in the fast growing market of body worn cameras to better service our community."
The request asks for a high-resolution camera, no bigger than a cellphone, with a 12-hour battery life, night vision capability and a built-in GPS system among other criteria.
Although the technology raises concerns about privacy and government intrusion, the body cameras are growing in popularity nationwide.
The cameras were, according to several reports, first introduced in Rialto, Calif., in February 2012. After one year, use of force by officers fell nearly 60 percent. And complaints against officers plummeted 88 percent.
Most organizations are latching onto those statistics because they promote accountability and increase resident safety.
Even the American Civil Liberties Union, which has expressed reservations about the proliferation of government surveillance, published a report in October 2013 supporting body cameras if parameters are implemented to check power and promote transparency.
"Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse," the report states.
In Florida, USF's Department of Criminology partnered with Orlando since the force is considering adding the equipment to its ranks. Lorie Fridell, associate professor of criminology, believes body cameras have the potential for improving behavior among officers and community members. She said the researchers involved with the project have been collecting data and official records since March 1.
"We are going to take a first look at the data at the nine-month mark," Fridell said, to form more reliable numbers and to better gauge the effects.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office does not use body cameras nor is it looking into getting them, said spokesman Larry McKinnon.
But pending federal grant funding, 40 body cameras are coming to Plant City police.
"Because, most importantly, it will capture the entire police-citizen encounter, rather than a dashboard cam that captures one dimension of that encounter," Capt. Jerry Stwan said.
Plant City officers would record whenever they pursue someone. They'll record at traffic stops. They'll record if they enter a house for a domestic violence dispute. But they must clearly announce they're recording.
"For instance, they won't walk into a McDonald's and secretly be recording," Stwan said.
Florida law requires officers to hold onto the recordings for 30 days, unless they are needed for evidence in a court case, Stwan said. The captain said his department is still drawing up the standard operating procedures for routine use of the cameras.
In the spring, he said, two body cameras were deployed as part of a pilot program with "good results."
Stwan said he doesn't believe Plant City residents will deem the cameras invasive — they won't stop flagging down officers for help out of privacy concerns.
Still, criminology professor Fridell said issues like reluctance among citizens to engage officers could indeed arise.
"But I would hope that a policy would allow an officer to turn off the camera because this person requested it," she said.
Contact Zack Peterson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @zpeterson918.