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Once reluctant, Pinellas sheriff exploring body cameras for deputies

Tampa Bay police agencies once resisted the idea of making officers wear body cameras. Now Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is the latest agency head to warm up to the idea.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri walks towards stores at the Clearwater MallThursday, March 26, 2020 in Clearwater. Sheriff Gualitieri and Clearwater Police Daniel Slaughter where out at businesses Thursday posting fliers which contain information about the county's recent "COVID-19 Safer at Home" resolution
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri walks towards stores at the Clearwater MallThursday, March 26, 2020 in Clearwater. Sheriff Gualitieri and Clearwater Police Daniel Slaughter where out at businesses Thursday posting fliers which contain information about the county's recent "COVID-19 Safer at Home" resolution [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 12, 2020
Updated Aug. 12, 2020

Pinellas County’s largest law enforcement agency is closer than it’s ever been to adopting body cameras.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has long resisted the technology, even as law enforcement agencies across the country have embraced it as a tool for transparency, evidence-gathering and officer safety. But the sheriff said Tuesday that he’s rethinking the devices, sparked by changes in technology and feedback from the public.

He’s now researching what kind of cameras to issue to his deputies — if he decides to adopt them.

“I’m more open now to it than I have been in the past,” the sheriff said. “Given the options that are available and some of the concerns that are mitigated, I think it’s the right thing to do to evolve and to keep an open mind.”

He’s not yet committing to equipping deputies with body-worn cameras but said agency leaders are talking to vendors and researching options more seriously than ever before.

He still remains opposed to body cameras that record all the time, and the idea that officers must be subject to constant monitoring to be trusted. Instead, he’s looking at programs that start recording when, say, an officer draws their weapon.

A body camera program “should primarily be used to collect evidence,” Gualtieri said. “At the same time, is it also used for accountability? Yes.”

Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies have been slow to adopt the technology. For years, the Gulfport Police Department and Pasco County Sheriff’s Office were the only agencies to use them.

Related: Body cameras now standard gear for Florida cops. But not in Tampa Bay

But police leaders’ stances have shifted over the last year, driven in part by recent protests against police brutality in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Many activists have pointed to body cameras as a key tool for police accountability, although research on their effectiveness is mixed. (Gualtieri pointed out that the Minneapolis Police Department uses body cameras.)

The Clearwater City Council voted last week to adopt the technology after opting against it in 2015, the last time the department tested the technology.

The St. Petersburg Police Department spent five years studying body cameras but never committed to adopting them. Then in February, Police Chief Anthony Holloway told the Tampa Bay Times he supports issuing the cameras to officers. This week his agency is wrapping up pilot programs that tested two kinds of systems. Holloway will soon recommend one of them to the City Council, said police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez.

Both Clearwater and St. Petersburg favor cameras that start recording when an officer draws their gun or Taser.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway shows the lens hole in his shirt where a body camera can record the action through his shirt, Tuesday, June 2, 2020 at the St. Petersburg Police Training Center. Several officers are being trained to use the body cameras made by BodyWorn.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway shows the lens hole in his shirt where a body camera can record the action through his shirt, Tuesday, June 2, 2020 at the St. Petersburg Police Training Center. Several officers are being trained to use the body cameras made by BodyWorn. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Related: After five years of indecision, St. Pete officers may finally get body cameras

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister announced in June that he was seeking cameras for his deputies that would record all the time — a broader program than the agency’s initial plan to purchase cameras that would activate only when a deputy unholsters their weapon.

The sheriff said his change of heart was inspired by the protests: “I think there’s an outcry by our public to be even more transparent,” Chronister said recently.

The Tampa Police Department is moving forward with plans to buy 650 body cameras after the initiative was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

That leaves the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office as the lone holdout among the region’s major law enforcement agencies.

Gualtieri said he’s never been against recording his deputies, pointing to his agency’s broad use of dashboard-mounted cameras — all 560 patrol cruisers have them, and they capture about 17,000 incidents a month.

But his reluctance to use body cameras centered on the cost and technology limitations. Early models didn’t have options for selective recording, like a weapon-activated camera. The lenses also captured a narrow angle, which the sheriff said could distort what happened.

The resources it would take to store and maintain video records was another concern. In 2016, Gualtieri told the Times it would cost $2 million a year to run a body camera program and that the agency has “to prioritize our resources and use them effectively where we think they’re going to produce the best result.”

But changes to the technology — wider lens angles, selective recording and cloud-based storage options — have broadened those options.

The sheriff, a Republican who is running for re-election in November, added that he’s heard from members of the community who want to see his agency implement body cameras. He declined to say who he talked to, but said it was a “significant cross-section of people.” He said he hasn’t talked about it with any leaders of the ongoing protests in St. Petersburg.

Inside his own agency, support is less widespread, according to an internal survey that 544 deputies responded to. About two-thirds of respondents said they wouldn’t wear a body camera if given the option to do so, while the other third said they would.

Mandatory body cameras for patrol deputies is opposed by 55 percent of respondents, according to the survey, while 15 percent said they support it and 30 percent said it depends on the type of camera.

About 120 deputies skipped a question about their preferred camera type. But of the 421 who did respond, the majority — 58 percent — preferred a system that automatically activates when a deputy unholsters their weapon.

Just 4 percent supported a system that records all the time.