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Coronavirus throws wrench in Tampa Bay police departments’ body camera plans

Tampa planned to purchase more than 600 cameras this year. That’s on hold, and so is a pilot program in St. Petersburg.
A body camera sits on the shoulder of a Tampa police officer. The department currently has about 60 cameras. A plan to expand the program will likely be delayed due to concerns about how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the city's budget, officials said.
A body camera sits on the shoulder of a Tampa police officer. The department currently has about 60 cameras. A plan to expand the program will likely be delayed due to concerns about how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the city's budget, officials said.
Published Apr. 24, 2020

TAMPA — The cornavirus has dealt a blow to the efforts of two Tampa Bay police departments to outfit officers with body cameras.

In Tampa, a plan to purchase more than 600 cameras by the end of year has been put on hold because of concerns the pandemic will have a catastrophic effect on the city’s revenue sources.

Across the bay, the St. Petersburg Police Department has delayed the start of a small body camera testing program indefinitely due to fallout from the crisis, a police spokeswoman said. Chief Anthony Holloway was going to use results of the test phase to decide whether to seek funding for hundreds more cameras.

“We have no date set as to when it will be rescheduled,” police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said in an email.

The city of Tampa had already signed a five-year, $5 million contract with Axon to purchase more than 600 blue-tooth activated cameras, one for every uniformed officer through the rank of corporal. Of that cost, about $1 million would have come from this year’s budget. All of the cameras were going to be distributed to personnel by the end of this year, Police Chief Brian Dugan said.

Then the coronavirus hit, plunging the American economy into a recession. When Mayor Jane Castor asked departments to consider ways to save money, Dugan suggested delaying the camera purchase. Castor agreed and the city recently contacted Axon and asked to put that part of the contract on hold for now.

The contract also included a $500,000 expenditure for Tasers and the city is moving forward with that part of the deal.

"I wanted the body worn cameras,” Dugan said. “I think it builds trust with the community. But I didn’t have a choice. What are we going to do if people lose jobs, but yet we have body worn cameras?”

The delays are the latest setbacks in a region where large law enforcement agencies have lagged behind much of the state and country in outfitting their personnel with cameras.

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

In Tampa, it’s been a matter of funding, not support for the technology among leaders.

Castor was police chief in 2014 when the department started a pilot program outfitting 60 officers with cameras. On the campaign trail in 2018, Castor vowed to expand the program. The first budget she submitted as mayor, for the fiscal year that ends in October, included $1.1 million for the camera program and won approval from the City Council.

In September, Castor announced that the city had landed a nearly $600,000 federal grant to help fund the expansion.

But the coronavirus pandemic has city officials worried that revenue sources such as property and sales taxes will take a hit, so they’re scrutinizing every expenditure, said Dennis Rogero, the city’s chief financial officer.

Dugan said the city will probably revisit the decision in September, when officials have a better idea of the city’s financial situation. The federal grant requires the city to make its first purchase by 2022.

Related: Tampa gets federal money to expand body camera program

Holloway took a noncommittal stance on cameras for years, then in February told the Tampa Bay Times he was set to launch a pilot program to decide whether to move forward with equipping the city’s 450 uniformed officers with the technology. If the pilot is successful, Holloway said at the time, he would ask Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council for the necessary funding.

Holloway described a test run in which six officers — including the chief himself — would wear body cameras for 45 days. The pilot was to start once a vendor finished retrofitting their uniforms with chest pockets needed to hold the device, which is basically a smart phone with a larger lens.

The department is still waiting for the adapted uniform shirts to be made, said Fernandez, the police spokesman. Also, the testing will require instructors to fly to the region for hands-on training with employees — impossible to do while maintaining social distancing — and most of the support personnel in the training division are civilians currently working from home.

The department has also halted all non-essential training anyway to divert personnel to enforce emergency orders related to the pandemic, among other duties, Fernandez said.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which received proposals from camera vendors last summer, is still in the “evaluation phase,” a spokeswoman said Friday.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office does not use body cameras and has no plans to do so.

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.

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