TAMPA — Hillsborough deputies are now hitting the streets with cameras on their chests.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office began issuing Axon cameras to deputies last week, Sheriff Chad Chronister announced Monday. The goal is to complete the rollout of 1,000 cameras by the end of September.
“We know that it’s human nature to perceive something one way in the heat of the moment,” Chronister said at a news conference at the Falkenburg Road Jail as four deputies wearing the Body 3 cameras in the center of their chests flanked him. “Having video will provide clarity for everyone and will also hold all parties accountable.”
In addition to patrol deputies, a wide range of personnel will be outfitted with cameras. They include members of the K-9 section, school resource deputies, uniformed street crime units, the marine unit, port security, civil process section and court security deputies.
The cameras will automatically begin recording when deputies draw their service weapon or Taser or activate the light bar on their patrol cars. The cameras also feature a live stream function that will allow supervisors to view what the camera is recording in real time.
The cost for the cameras, software and data storage is $14 million over five years.
“These cameras will also provide reassurance for our deputies that their justified, split-second decisions under extreme conditions will not be second-guessed as the actual events will be recorded as they unfolded from each deputy’s perspective,” Chronister said.
The deployment of the cameras by Tampa Bay’s largest law enforcement agency is another major development in a region where the biggest 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. But police leaders’ stances have shifted over the last year, driven by improvements in technology, a reduction in costs and the recent protests against police brutality in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
Former Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said in 2014 he wasn’t convinced the benefits were worth the cost. When Chronister was appointed sheriff in 2017, he said he wasn’t ready to commit to cameras.
“This is something that I wanted to do since I became the sheriff three years ago,” Chronister said Monday. It’s always been cost-prohibitive.”
Last year, Chronister decided to seek bids from vendors. He initially thought that a weapons-activated system would be a budget compromise, but since then the cost of data storage has dropped. In June, Chronister asked the County Commission for more money for a system that will record nearly full time. Commissioners voted 6-1 to approve the request.
Chronister said calls for more law enforcement reform in recent months “made the decision that much easier.”
“We certainly have heard this public outcry for increasing accountability and increased transparency,” he said.
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. His agency was expected last week to wrap up pilot programs that tested two kinds of systems. Holloway is expected to recommend one of them to the City Council soon.
The Clearwater City Council voted this month to adopt the technology after deciding against it in 2015, the last time the department tested the technology.
Both Clearwater and St. Petersburg favor cameras that start recording when an officer draws a gun or Taser.
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. But last week, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he’s rethinking the devices due to 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.
Chronister believes the technology will show his deputies at their best.
“I am confident that they bodyworn cameras will show the professionalism of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office,” he said, “and highlight the dedicated men and women who display integrity and honor every day as we protect and serve the community of Hillsborough County.”