Sunday, February 18, 2018
Public safety

Pasco man's dash cams snare speeding police, fire, city officials

TAMPA — Erich Campbell says he doesn't dislike cops, and he isn't on a mission. He just hates seeing law enforcement zip by him on the road, speeding without lights or sirens, sometimes cutting off other cars.

It seems hypocritical, he says, and dangerous.

"It's one of my pet peeves," said Campbell, 40.

But that isn't why he bought the dashboard cameras and installed them years ago. He did that as a precaution: If he was in an accident or pulled over for any reason, he wanted evidence that could back up his statements.

Still, the cameras rolled, always.

Eventually, they recorded a Pasco County sheriff's deputy going 92 miles per hour in a 55-mph zone, then tailgating some motorists. The car's lights and sirens were not on.

He recorded a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy speeding and cutting off cars on U.S. 41 on a rainy day. He caught a Tampa police officer going 73 mph in a 50-mph zone — in Pasco.

Last month, he recorded an unmarked city of Tampa vehicle going at least 102 mph in Lutz.

He posts the videos on YouTube and also sometimes contacts the agencies. Campbell is usually told the speeding is not acceptable and internal investigations will be launched.

Tampa is investigating Fire Rescue spokesman Henry Williams for driving 102 mph on U.S. 41 in Lutz on Dec. 4, records show.

"The video has been placed on YouTube and shines a negative light on Tampa Fire Rescue," a notice sent to Williams states.

Williams declined to comment Friday without getting permission from fire Chief Tom Forward. Williams, though, was overheard talking about the incident with a female colleague by a Tampa Bay Times reporter who received an accidental phone call from Williams' cellphone.

The spokesman was heard saying that Chief Forward admonished him but that it was not a problem.

"It will be all right," Williams said to the woman. "The good news for me, I'm a likable person."

• • •

This isn't the first time Campbell has taken on law enforcement "on principle."

In 2009, he flashed his lights on a busy Tampa highway to warn motorists of a speed trap ahead. The Florida Highway Patrol ticketed him, saying flashing vehicle lights is illegal.

Contending that no such law exists, Campbell sued on behalf of every other driver in Florida ticketed for the same violation over six years. A judge eventually threw out the lawsuit, but Campbell still won in a way, because the FHP stopped writing those tickets.

Campbell lives in Land O'Lakes with his wife, a doctor, and their 9-month-old son. He has never been arrested, state records show.

He doesn't want people to think he is against law enforcement. In most videos he includes the agency's response so it doesn't seem one-sided, he says. Viewers' comments swing from pro-law enforcement — the officer might have been on a call — to anti-police — he was rushing to a sale on doughnuts.

"My primary goal isn't to get anyone in trouble," Campbell said. "I'm just sick of this hypocrisy — this 'Do as I say, not as I do.' "

In addition to his four speeding videos, he has posted videos of crashes. In those cases, he first stops at the scene and offers to email a copy of the video to anyone involved who wants it.

He also has the "quadcopter," a little helicopter with four rotor blades and a camera. He has used it to record a crash only once — and only because it was by his home, where he keeps the device.

"That's kind of a little hobby thing, a toy that I play with," he said.

The dash cameras were inspired by a crash he was involved in in the late 1990s. He and his wife were stopped on a major road when a driver in front of him suddenly put her car in reverse and hit his car, he said.

The woman apologized, Campbell recalls, but as they waited for police, she changed her story. Campbell knew that it looked like his car had rear-ended hers, so both parties quickly made up a nonliability agreement and drove away.

"I thought, 'There's got to be a way to record, so you have an unbiased witness,' " he said.

• • •

Campbell doesn't drive around looking for speeding officers, he said. He simply captures it as it happens.

Law enforcement officers are allowed to speed without lights for some calls, so Campbell usually doesn't follow authorities when they are in their own jurisdiction. He followed Williams last month because it was a city car in Lutz.

He kept up as the unmarked Crown Victoria in front of him hit 100 mph.

"When I hit the train tracks just north of the apex on (U.S.) 41, the car kind of floated," Campbell said. "It made me nervous so I backed off."

Because Campbell has been using a pseudonym on YouTube and reporting the speeding as a "concerned citizen," officials had not linked the videos to him. For weeks, there has been chatter in local law enforcement communities: Who is this vigilante?

Forward, the Tampa fire chief, said Mayor Bob Buckhorn asked him that very question.

"I didn't think you could own that kind of equipment," Forward said. "I've never heard of anybody even wanting to do that."

The chief said he takes the allegations seriously, though he criticized Campbell's speed.

Last fall, after the Tampa police officer was recorded going 73 mph in Pasco, the department warned staffers about speeding.

"All personnel, especially those driving in marked units, should be aware that the public rightfully expects officers to obey all traffic regulations. … Social media now allows the public to promptly and anonymously report officers who appear to be violating traffic laws, and those reports are taken seriously by the chief and staff," a memo states.

Campbell has no plans to turn off his cameras. And he will keep posting whatever he finds interesting.

"I'm not an activist. I'm not seeking out trouble," he said, "though the older I get, the more cynical I become."

News researcher John Martin and staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report.

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