Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

Tampa Bay law enforcement divided on the use of body cameras (w/video)

ST. PETERSBURG — About six months ago, a Police Department staffer won a raffle at a law enforcement conference. The prize? A brand-new body camera.

The freebie was hardly the first time a tech company hoped to entice the agency into making a large purchase.

Several times in the past year, vendors have contacted the St. Petersburg Police Department about body cameras, which are entwined in the national debate about race relations and police accountability.

Chief Tony Holloway has a standing order when these inquiries happen: Tell 'em no thanks. As for the body camera won in the raffle?

"I just told them leave it on the shelf," Holloway said.

Today, that is where the device remains, bundled in the box it came in.

Cellphone cameras and social media have heightened scrutiny of law enforcement, especially in the wake of a steady stream of police killings of black people across the country. Videos of people recording encounters with the police often go viral, blanketing media platforms from the network news to Facebook with raw footage of procedural misconduct. In an increasing number of locales, police officers are wearing body cameras that show their side.

In Tampa Bay, however, law enforcement's reception of this new technology has been mixed.

It ranges from full acceptance in some corners — the sheriff in Pasco County outfitted all 415 members of his agency with body cameras in February — to blatant resistance. Both sheriff's offices in Pinellas and Hillsborough have no plans to bring them online.

Some places, such as Tampa and Clearwater, are in various stages of experimental trials with body cameras or are working with universities to study them.

In St. Petersburg, Holloway has, literally and figuratively, shelved the issue after initially saying he wanted to test out cameras this summer.

Not even a new state law, scheduled to take effect Wednesday and aimed at addressing concerns about privacy and public records, has settled matters for St. Petersburg's chief.

"It's a great tool, I'm just waiting on figuring out how to deploy it," Holloway said. "Once we figure out how much it's going to cost us, once we figure out the privacy issue, and the retention period, then we're ready to move forward."

Some people had hoped the resistance would be over by now.

The Legislature made it a priority this year to provide Florida's law enforcement agencies some guidance about body cams. The legislation, SB 248, shields body camera footage from disclosure under public record laws if it was taken on private property. It also requires departments to keep videos for at least 90 days.

The new law, and the fact that citizens are calling for cameras, should prompt people to "embrace the moment," said Goliath Davis, St. Petersburg's former deputy mayor and police chief.

"It's absurd to suggest we can't employ body cameras for the reasons they're giving," Davis said recently. "It goes back to early on when folk were raising so much sand about landmark (court) cases that were so-called handcuffing the police. No one is suggesting body cameras are necessarily a panacea, but they do improve on situations as evidence of what we've seen around the country."

Footage from the cameras can protect both sides, Davis and others say.

But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he doesn't think "wiring up" officers is the best way to improve trust with the community.

"For those that are calling for it because they believe that in order for cops to do the right thing they need to be monitored, that's offensive," Gualtieri said. He called the new law, which he helped craft, a good first step. But he wondered if some of the sudden embrace is political.

It's not like body cameras are a brand new phenomenon in the Tampa Bay area.

The Gulfport Police Department started using them five years ago, without any fanfare or controversy.

Police Chief Robert Vincent said he was initially attracted to body cameras because they are cheaper than dash cams. Vincent said the cameras haven't been controversial at his department, nor have they prompted a flood of public records requests. He said body cameras compliment dashboard cameras, which turn on automatically.

"They're not going to be a solution to everything. You don't get to see the entire scene," he said. "I want to emphasize that we're going to use them in conjunction with other evidence. That's never going to be the only thing we consider."

Vincent said he wouldn't go back. But he understands the wariness.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said deputies drove conversation on cameras.

"People were pulling out their cellphones on our members," Nocco said. "So (deputies) were looking at cameras on their own."

Nocco said the cameras have helped with evidence gathering. He said in one instance the confession of a sexual assault suspect was caught on a deputy's body camera.

Holloway has typically embraced technology.

Days ago, he announced an effort to expand the use of in-car cameras in police cruisers. The department also plans to get a license plate reader.

In his prior job leading the Clearwater Police Department, Holloway took advantage of a federal program that allows local law enforcement agencies to buy surplus military equipment.

Holloway's successor, Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter, said his officers will start wearing cameras this summer and report back in a few months.

Last week, a police captain told the Tampa City Council that things are going well with that department's body camera pilot program.

But for Holloway, his concerns go beyond worries about storage capacity and training staff to become video editors who can redact exempt material.

The cameras pose a philosophical quandary for the chief, who has been in law enforcement for 30 years.

"It gets to the point, when are we going to start trusting each other again?" Holloway said.

Holloway said he can understand why there's a crisis in confidence right now, given recent events, such as the cellphone video a citizen recorded that showed a South Carolina police officer shooting an unarmed black man in the back.

For now though, he said, he'll remain on the sidelines when it comes to body cameras.

"The reality is we have to put on cameras to show we are doing our jobs correctly. This is another tool we have to put around our belt so to speak, and we'll wear it," Holloway said. "We're going there. There's no choice. We will do body cams, once we answer those questions. Because that's what society wants."

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Contact Kameel Stanley at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.

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