CLEARWATER — Citizens across the nation are demanding that law enforcement officers be held accountable by wearing body cameras. But does the need outweigh the cost in a city with a reputation of trust between its police and residents?
The Clearwater City Council on Thursday could not come to a consensus on that question. It pushed a vote on whether to spend nearly $1 million launching a camera program to Aug. 5, after a July 28 workshop to sort through next year’s budget.
During the 5,869 arrests Clearwater police made in 2019, officers used force 175 times, according to Chief Dan Slaughter. Of the internal investigations launched into nine allegations of excessive force, two were sustained, resulting in discipline.
And the department has not had a case of brutality like George Floyd, who died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, sparking a nationwide uprising against racism and police brutality. While Tampa and St. Petersburg had protests that turned chaotic, demonstrations in Clearwater have remained peaceful, which local activists credited to the department’s established trust in the community.
“If we were not experiencing what is going on nationwide, which is a valid issue when you look at the video that came out of Minneapolis, but if that had not occurred we probably are not having this conversation today in the city of Clearwater. Because there’s no evidence that we really need the cameras,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said.
But residents who called in to the council’s virtual meeting to advocate for the cameras noted the department’s track record does not preclude it from having a bad-acting officer in the future.
“I’m very proud to call Chief Slaughter our police chief, however Chief Slaughter cannot be everywhere all the time,” Eleanor Breland said. ”One life is worth more than what it’s going to cost to have the cameras.”
Slaughter said it would cost the city $747,031 to purchase 200 cameras, 25 chargers and hire a records clerk and sergeant to manage the program. After the purchases, it would cost $569,855 annually to maintain licensing and fund the two new positions, he said.
In Pinellas County, only the Gulfport Police Department has body cameras for its officers. St. Petersburg police are currently testing about five cameras during a trial period. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has vehicle cameras, but cameras are not worn by deputies.
In June, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announced the city would restart its effort to buy more than 600 body cameras, an existing initiative that had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The Hillsborough County Commission last month also voted to pursue body cameras that would run full time, nixing a plan from last summer to buy cameras that only activated when sheriff’s deputies drew their weapons.
Along with Hibbard, council member David Allbritton stressed the lack of systemic problems within Clearwater police, saying adopting cameras would be a knee-jerk reaction to national issues.
Council members Mark Bunker and Hoyt Hamilton said adopting cameras is the least the city could do to respond to the need for systematic change in society.
“While I don’t feel our police department specifically has a burning need for cameras, given society’s climate, it’s probably the right time to go to cameras,” Hamilton said. “From this point forward, as young people become police officers ... they will be wearing a body camera from day one, and it will just become another part of their uniform.”
As the deciding vote, council member Kathleen Beckman said “the positives far outweigh some of the negatives.” But she said she wants the public to be fully aware of the financial costs, knowing cameras are not an absolute guarantee to prevent misconduct.
The council on Thursday also voted to set the 2021 property tax rate at the same rate as last year: $5.95 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value. But finance staff has said the city may have to raise taxes as much as 16 percent beginning in 2025 to make up for lost revenues.
The council is scheduled to hold a special work session on July 28 on the budget. The city is facing a potential loss this year of $9.4 million in sales tax revenue, beach and park rentals, and admissions and fees due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Coupled with increased expenses and modest growth in property values predicted over the next few years, city officials are expecting budget constraints.
Since Clearwater last studied the potential use of body cameras in 2015, technology has evolved to address some longtime concerns over the technology.
Cameras can now be linked to activate when an officer unholsters their firearm or Taser. Much of the footage would be public record subject to disclosure, prompting previous concerns over the feasibility of maintaining and redacting such extensive records. But new software is now available that uses artificial intelligence to expedite redaction.
Studies on whether cameras can be credited with reducing complaints and use of force have been mixed.
A 2019 study from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, one of the largest reviews of academic research on body cameras, found no consistent effect on officer behavior or citizens’ view of police.
For residents like Javante Scott, the cost would be worth it, even if the cameras would only prevent the loss of one life.
“I don’t think the argument can be about complaints or anything, because as we’ve seen it only takes one time,” Scott told the council. “I’d rather be in the safe position than to wish we had made this decision.”