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St. Pete's 4-year body camera debate boils over at City Hall

St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway (left) and civil rights activist Sevell Brown (right) argue Thursday about the city's four-year process to weigh body cameras for police officers outside City Council chambers. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times]
St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway (left) and civil rights activist Sevell Brown (right) argue Thursday about the city's four-year process to weigh body cameras for police officers outside City Council chambers. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times]
Published Oct. 18, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Four years of frustration over the city's inability to decide whether officers should wear body cameras peaked during Thursday's City Council meeting when civil rights leader Sevell Brown confronted Police Chief Tony Holloway.

Earlier, a handful of activists clamoring for body cameras told council that the police department's new idea — body cameras that are only activated when officers draw their guns or charge their Tasers — doesn't go far enough to protect officers and the public.

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

Those cameras would go back 30 seconds and store the footage. Standard body cameras, which are being used through the country but are being resisted by several Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies, can record and store video footage of an officer's entire shift.

Those devices are seen as a way to improve police accountability. Brown and other activists urged the city to adopt them.

Brown, the national director of the National Christian League of Councils, then confronted Holloway in the hallway outside council chambers, demanding that the chief meet with the American Civil Liberties Union to discuss the issue.

"You set the meeting right now," Brown said. "Will you meet with them in regard to body cams? Can you or can't you?"

Holloway said he would send Brown some possible meeting dates.

The heated exchange went back and forth for about 10 minutes. Brown raised his voice and both spoke over the other. Their faces were inches apart and, at one point, the chief used his finger to poke an animated Brown in the chest.

Holloway defended the weapon-activated body cameras his department is scheduled to test, saying the devices will always be recording and storing footage whenever an officer activates them. The other type of body cameras can be dependent on officers choosing to turn them on.

"The cameras work at all times," he said. "There's no forgetting (to turn them on.) When you do something, it turns the camera on."

Brown and the other speakers said rewinding the camera back 30 seconds after a gun is pulled from its holster isn't enough. Traditional body cameras, they said, record over a far longer time period, providing important context that shows what led to an incident escalating.

They also complained that officers could use excessive force while their firearms and Tasers remain in holstered, negating those cameras as a police accountability tool.

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While the issue was raised at council there was nothing on the agenda for members to act on. Holloway has been weighing the body camera issue ever since St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman hired the former Clearwater police chief in 2014. The chief mulled a trial run in May 2015 but it never happened. He then pivoted to mounting dashboard cameras onto 15 police vehicles. That also stalled.

Now, four years later, the department was poised to start a test program of the weapon-activated cameras in August, but then the chief said they discovered a glitch that kept the devices from recording properly. Now that is on hold, too, until the vendor can fix the problem.

When it's fixed, the chief told council members, his agency will conduct a pilot program lasting one or two months. Then he'll come back to council and brief them on the cost and effectiveness of the devices. Council will have to vote on whether to buy them.

RELATED: St. Petersburg's mayor, police chief promised dashboard cameras, but City Council hits the brakes

Different agencies across Tampa Bay have taken different paths. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office uses dashboard cameras, but Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is dead set against body cameras. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office does not have dashboard cameras, but swears by body cameras and often posts those videos to social media. The Tampa Police Department uses both. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office uses neither.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.