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Area law enforcement agencies mixed in reactions to USF body camera study

The St. Petersburg Police Department will test the cameras in training, but Chief Tony Holloway, left, has concerns about privacy.
The St. Petersburg Police Department will test the cameras in training, but Chief Tony Holloway, left, has concerns about privacy.
Published Oct. 14, 2015

The conclusion by a recent study from the University of South Florida that body camera-wearing police officers may be better behaved validates the technology for Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco.

"It is a tool that definitely helps law enforcement," said Nocco, who has outfitted all 415 members of his agency with the cameras. "We have policies in place to protect the deputies and protect citizens."

But not all Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies are ready to embrace the cameras, even after the study.

"It doesn't affect my opinion at all, because I'm still looking at the other side of it," St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway said.

As the technology continues to develop, body cameras have received a mixed reaction from local agencies. Supporters say it makes life easier for deputies and citizens. Opponents cite privacy and financial concerns.

The USF study, which focused on the Orlando Police Department, found a 65 percent drop in complaints against camera-wearing officers and a 53 percent reduction in incidents that required those officers to use force.

Orlando's entire police force will soon be equipped with the devices.

Holloway, who is co-chair of a national task force on body cameras, has avoided bringing cameras to St. Petersburg.

"The biggest question I still have is the expectation of privacy," he said.

The department plans to test cameras in training situations soon, but Holloway said he still worries about the ethical implications.

He presented a hypothetical scenario: What happens if a nosy neighbor requests footage after seeing officers inside the home next door?

"Are you ready to put your personal life out there for everyone else to see?" he said.

But Nocco said state lawmakers added safeguards this year to help protect against invasions of privacy.

From the sheriff's perspective, the cameras are a plus because they help corroborate stories and resolve complaints quickly. Pasco started using the cameras earlier this year.

Another benefit, according to Nocco, is that cameras improve how citizens behave.

"When they know they're being videotaped, their behavior changes," he said.

USF is conducting a similar study with the Tampa Police Department. The results will be available next year, according to police spokesman Steve Hegarty.

The department started a yearlong pilot program in March with a small group of officers wearing cameras.

Hegarty said the department hasn't made any final decisions about the cameras.

"We need to train our folks and get used to using them, and we need to find a way to pay for it in the long term," he said.

But he said the Orlando study is "very promising."

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is skeptical of the cameras, was unavailable for comment.

In Clearwater, the Police Department is also waiting on results from a pilot program that happened earlier this year.

"We'll make a decision once the report is done," Chief Dan Slaughter said.

Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said body cameras would likely cost the Sheriff's Office millions of dollars. Records requests would become projects, requiring thousands of hours to edit the footage.

"For us right now, it's not feasible to be involved," he said. "The state Legislature still needs to address the privacy issues."

He added that Hillsborough has seen a reduction in complaints against officers in the last few years without the body cameras.

"We have earned the respect of the community. We continue to earn that respect," he said. "We demand high-caliber people."

McKinnon said the Sheriff's Office expects all deputies to behave accordingly.

"We certainly don't want to depend on a body camera to make sure that occurs," he said.

Contact Ayana Stewart at astewart@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @AyanaStewart.