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Clearwater police officers will wear body cameras next year

Police Chief Dan Slaughter hopes to have cameras launched by March. It will be the second law enforcement agency in Pinellas County to adopt the technology.
Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter, center, attends a peaceful protest with City Manager Bill Horne, right, on June 5 at Coachman Park in Downtown Clearwater. The City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to adopt body cameras for its police, becoming the second city in Pinellas County to have a program.
Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter, center, attends a peaceful protest with City Manager Bill Horne, right, on June 5 at Coachman Park in Downtown Clearwater. The City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to adopt body cameras for its police, becoming the second city in Pinellas County to have a program. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 7, 2020
Updated Aug. 7, 2020

CLEARWATER — Nearly three months after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody prompted a national uprising against racism and brutality, the Clearwater City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to adopt body cameras for its police officers.

The city’s police force becomes the second law enforcement agency in Pinellas County to adopt body-worn cameras. The Gulfport Police Department has had a program for about a decade.

Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter said he hopes to have cameras in operation by March following scenario-based training and implementation of equipment.

“We’ve already talked internally and we’re already prepared for this and we’re moving forward and embracing it, we’re not resisting it,” Slaughter said. “We’re going to use these videos like an offense coordinator with their offensive line to get better and do a better job.”

The city will pay Axon Enterprise of Arizona $2.2 million over the next five years for 200 body cameras, 25 docking stations, digital evidence storage and management, and training. The city will also spend $68,000 a year on a records clerk to manage the public records requests related to the footage and to upgrade an officer to a sergeant to conduct regular compliance audits.

About a fourth of the first year’s $566,000 cost will come from a federal forfeiture fund. The remainder will come from the city’s general fund.

The council began discussing body cameras in June, shortly after Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and amid ongoing protests across the country. The city had tested cameras in 2015 but opted not to pursue the program.

Compared to tensions in neighboring cities and across the country, Clearwater has a longstanding reputation for working to build trust in the community. The department has a strong focus on community engagement and outreach. Slaughter attended two peaceful protests in Clearwater following Floyd’s death along with other city officials.

Related: In Clearwater, pain after the death of George Floyd is playing out differently
St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway demonstrates a body camera that his agency was testing earlier this year.
St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway demonstrates a body camera that his agency was testing earlier this year. [ KATHRYN VARN | Times ]

Among the 5,869 arrests Clearwater police made in 2019, officers used force 175 times, according to the chief. Of the internal investigations launched into nine allegations of excessive force, two were sustained, resulting in discipline.

During discussion about whether to adopt the cameras in July, council members weighed the city’s positive relationship between police and residents with the costs and drawbacks of cameras. Mayor Frank Hibbard at the time had doubts, noting cameras are not “a panacea” to prevent misconduct, exemplified by the fact Minneapolis police wore body cameras at the time of Floyd’s death.

But the council on Thursday was united behind the effort as the community and nation continues conversations about race and police brutality.

“I hope that this gives citizens and some of our communities some solace,” Hibbard said. “At the same time, I believe this is also protection for our officers, because I really believe our officers are out there doing the right things.”

Related: After five years of indecision, St. Pete officers may finally get body cameras

Across the country, police body cameras have become increasingly more common. About 58 percent of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States have the technology.

Tampa Bay has been slow, however, to adopt cameras. St. Petersburg police are currently testing about five cameras in a trial. 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 also voted in June to pursue body cameras that would run full time, nixing a plan from last summer to buy cameras for the Sheriff’s Office that only activated when deputies drew their weapons.

Related: Tampa to add body cameras to police officers

Slaughter said Clearwater must now develop policy for how officers will be expected to operate the technology. He said cameras will automatically activate when an officer pulls a firearm or taser. And when vehicles are upgraded, he intends to include a mechanism to trigger body cameras when an officer turns on the lights.

But whether officers will be required to activate the cameras every time they exit a vehicle or engage with a citizen must still be determined.

Slaughter noted there are instances where an officer may stop to have a friendly conversation with a resident. In those cases, do residents deserve to be recorded and subject to public records requests?

Council member Kathleen Beckman said she would like for the city to start informing the public about what they can expect as they interact with officers wearing body cameras.

“I think educating your police force and having a learning curve is certainly understandable, but I also think in tandem with that, we have to educate our residents,” she said.

Related: Hillsborough sheriff changes mind after protests, seeks full-time body cameras

Research on the effectiveness of body cameras in decreasing cases of 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.

But during discussions over the past few months about the cameras, even residents who praised the Clearwater Police Department for its record and relationships stressed the need for the cameras.

“I think we have an excellent police department overall,” resident Eleanor Breland said last month. “It doesn’t take but one incident for basically mud to be thrown on the whole department ... I think it’s worth the money. I think that it’s something that would give a fresh viewpoint to an incident if and when we ever had one.”