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

Under a pilot program, about 60 officers with the Tampa Police Department wear body cameras like the one displayed here at police headquarters by master police officer Cliff Griffin. Because of costs, the city has decided against equipping all its officers with the devices. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA   |   Times]
Under a pilot program, about 60 officers with the Tampa Police Department wear body cameras like the one displayed here at police headquarters by master police officer Cliff Griffin. Because of costs, the city has decided against equipping all its officers with the devices. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published March 19, 2018

Miami-Dade police wear body cameras. So do officers in Jacksonville and Orlando. Broward, Orange and Duval sheriff's deputies, too. And Palm Beach is trying to find money for them.

But in the other major Florida population center, Tampa Bay, only Pasco County and Temple Terrace have embraced the devices, which surged to the forefront in 2014 during the debate about police behavior after police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore made national headlines.

When it comes to outfitting officers with body cameras, Tampa Bay is marching in place while the rest of the state — and the country — are making the small cameras often worn over the abdomen a standard piece of gear.

"This is moving at light speed not only all over Florida, but the country," said Howard Simon, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Passing up the technology, Simon and other experts say, exposes officers to false claims and citizens to potential abuse. Agencies from Miami to Pasco laud the cameras for reducing citizen complaints as well as confusion in police-involved shootings. Some research shows they reduce police misconduct, too.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says about 89 police departments and 20 sheriff's offices are using cameras. Nationally, a 2016 survey of 70 large departments found 95 percent had either started using cameras or pledged to do so, according to a joint study by the major cities chiefs and major county sheriff's associations.

But many bay area elected officials and law enforcement chiefs say it's too expensive to store the video and hire the additional staff to process public record requests. They also say cameras risk invading the privacy of citizens who aren't doing anything wrong.

"It's an experiment worth pursuing. The problem for us is the cost," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

• • •

Tampa had a pilot program involving 60 officers, but without federal grants, there aren't plans to expand to the entire force of about 1,000. Most of the 60 officers still wear the cameras, said Tampa Police Department spokesman Steve Hegarty.

Clearwater isn't interested in buying body cameras right now, either. Nor are Pinellas and Hernando counties.

In Hillsborough County, then-Sheriff David Gee said in 2014 he wasn't convinced the benefits are worth the cost of outfitting the agency's 2,000 or so deputies. Under new Sheriff Chad Chronister, the department declined to discuss body cameras, but a spokesman said the earlier stance hasn't changed.

In St. Petersburg, Chief Tony Holloway has been studying and testing various camera styles — including cameras mounted on guns — during most of his nearly four-year tenure.

With testing nearly done, Holloway plans to present options to Mayor Rick Kriseman soon. Kriseman has opposed body cameras, but will listen to his chief, spokesman Ben Kirby said in an email.

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"He still trusts Chief Holloway on this issue," Kirby said.

The ACLU's Simon thinks it's time for Holloway to decide.

"It seems absurd that it would take four years to study something that police departments all across the country have been able to implement on a shorter time table," Simon said.

Holloway said the cameras are no panacea. More important, he said, is that his 552 officers are well-trained and have a rapport with the community.

"That camera is not, so to speak, the end-all be-all," Holloway said. "If we don't have that communication, it doesn't matter what we have on that camera."

There are few signs of public pressure to use cameras, as there has been in other communities.

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse, a progressive icon in the Sunshine City, said last year that the absence of questionable shootings was proof the city didn't need to worry about body cameras.

In Tampa, the Citizen Review Board, a resident sounding panel for police activity, held an October 2016 presentation on the cameras, but Chief Brian Dugan says he rarely hears about them when he interacts with residents.

"Really, it's not much of an issue," Dugan said. "But, as with most things, until there is an event, it's not much of an issue."

After the fatal police shooting of Jesus Cervantes in Plant City last July, and the fatal shooting last month of veteran Sidney Richardson in Tampa, Restorative Justice, a Hillsborough-based group, circulated a petition with a host of demands, including body cameras for all officers. Those efforts have gained little traction.

This week, though, signs of community interest resurfaced. Longtime civil rights activist Sevell Brown III called for St. Petersburg police to adopt cameras, and the ACLU announced a renewed effort in Tampa Bay.

Local prosecutors don't appear swayed.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe thinks the cameras have too narrow a field of vision, limiting their value as evidence.

"I'm not a huge fan. I've not seen a case where I could say, off the top of my head, that it would have made a difference."

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren had no comment .

• • •

The outlier in Tampa Bay is Pasco County. Sheriff Chris Nocco says the cameras have "exceeded expectations" since they were adopted in 2015. The Sheriff's Office used federal forfeiture funds to outfit roughly 400 patrol deputies. Now, the agency uses county money to cover the $485,000 annual cost.

The Pasco Sheriff's Office routinely releases dramatic footage of shoot-outs and foot chases, revealing both citizen and police misconduct.

One deputy was fired after his camera showed he didn't dust for fingerprints at a crime scene. A citizen injured in a Wesley Chapel shoplifting case turned out to have been resisting arrest.

"When a citizen has a concern involving the interaction between themselves and a deputy, what may have taken days or weeks to resolve can now be reviewed within minutes," Nocco told the Tampa Bay Times in an email.

Temple Terrace adopted cameras in 2013 and they've proven effective, said Capt. Michael Pridemore.

Further east in Hillsborough County, Plant City was on track to purchase cameras in 2014 for its 40 officers until new police Chief Ed Duncan decided against it, citing cost and the department's "exemplary rate of citizen approval."

That's why no cameras were rolling when two officers opened fire on 35-year-old Cervantes after he crashed his car during a chase.

Body camera use among law enforcement agencies dates to 2009, but there was an "explosion" of interest in 2014 after Ferguson and Baltimore, said Michael D. White, a criminology professor at Arizona State University.

In Ferguson, Michael Brown, a black, unarmed 18-year-old, was shot dead by a white officer, and in Baltimore, 25-year-old Freddie Gray was fatally injured while riding in a police transport van. Both deaths sparked violent protests.

Many departments acquired cameras to improve community relations, especially with minority residents, said White, who also works with the U.S. Department of Justice on body camera grants.

"A lot of agencies saw what was happening … and said, 'We don't want to be like that and it appears body-worn cameras will help us in this regard to show we're going to hold our officers accountable.'?"

Not all research supports cameras. Yale University political scientist Alexander Koppock worked with Washington, D.C., police comparing officers who wore cameras and those who didn't. The conclusion? Across a host of measurements, they acted the same.

That surprised Koppock, but he suggests that police are closely watched by a growing number of security cameras, dashboard cameras, even cellphone cameras.

"When they're in public, they're monitored already," Koppock said.

Relying on other people's video wasn't enough for Florida's largest metro area. In Miami-Dade, the Police Department's 1,100 officers began wearing cameras in May 2016 after a three-year study.

At first, the union wasn't thrilled, but soon realized the cameras protect officers from unfounded complaints, said Capt. Gus Duarte.

Cameras also have been crucial in police shooting investigations, Duarte said, like one where they captured officers pleading with an armed man to drop his gun.

"And the person just lifted the gun and the officers had no choice," Duarte said.

In his city, Duarte said, the body camera debate is over.

"We wanted to be transparent with the public and we wanted to protect the officers, and this serves both purposes."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at