PLANT CITY — Police in Plant City found the funds to buy a $335,000 armored security vehicle but they don't think it's worth their money to equip officers with body cameras.
These choices, coming on the heels of an unarmed man's fatal shooting by Plant City police, have drawn criticism that came to a head last week when members of the advocacy group Restorative Justice Coalition were removed from a city commission meeting.
The confrontation arose after a public hearing Sept. 25 on the annual city budget.
"Your community asked you for accountability. We asked you for transparency," Justin Garcia of Plant City said during the hearing. "We asked you for funding for body and dash cameras and what did you do? You ask for an armored vehicle."
The State Attorney's Office found that two officers were justified in the shooting death of 35-year-old Jesus Cervantes because he came at one of them in a "shooting stance," with a glass pipe and a rolled-up shirt in his hands.
The shooting followed a July 6 car chase and crash. Cervantes , a married father of four, was found to have had methamphetamine in his system.
Many law enforcement agencies are turning to body cameras, in part, as a way to provide accurate versions of encounters between officers and the public. Under its previous police chief, Plant City had a body camera pilot program, as well as dash cameras, but the department has moved away from them.
Police Chief Ed Duncan defended the proposal to purchase the armored vehicle, saying it would help police respond to people facing any disaster, natural or man-made. Police in Tampa and St. Petersburg have purchased the vehicles in the last five years.
"To not be able to get some sort of resource or help to them," Duncan said, "that would be devastating for us."
Money for the vehicle comes from Duncan's move to delay the purchase of new police vehicles, he said.
"I know that they are an expensive item," he said. "That's why I looked at the ability to purchase an item like this without an adverse effect to the budget."
Police spokesman Sgt. Alfred Van Duyne said in July that the cameras and their storage systems are expensive to buy and maintain — an unnecessary investment and a "knee-jerk reaction," he said, to heightened tensions between police and communities nationwide. Plant City police, Van Duyne said then, have "an exemplary rate of citizen approval."
One local resident who spoke at the Sept. 25 public hearing, Jack Myers, said he supports funding both the armored carrier and the cameras. Myers, a pastor who also delivered the meeting invocation, said the vehicle would help provide protection in desperate times — against looters, for example, after a hurricane like Irma.
"When they get desperate they loot, they'll even kill," he said.
Body cams and dash cams "also are a great investment," Myers said, adding that he trusts in the city commission's budget decisions.
Some 15 people spoke during the public hearing to ask why the armored carrier is more important than the accountability that cameras would provide. It was the only budget item that met with objection. Commission members approved the budget without discussion.
"I already had the information I needed," Mayor Rick Lott said later. "There was no new information that night that was given to me to persuade me not to support that item in the budget."
After the budget's approval, members of the Restorative Justice Coalition began chanting and were removed from City Hall. The coalition was founded earlier this year to work on issues including an equitable justice system in the Tampa Bay area.
Members of the group later stood outside, chanting and holding signs until the building closed, then followed Mayor Lott to his car.
Staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected]