Once reluctant, Hillsborough sheriff now moving forward on body cameras for deputies

The office is seeking proposals from vendors to outfit 1,200 deputies with the cameras. The move is an about face for Sheriff Chad Chronister, who has opposed the cameras.
A body camera rides on the shoulder of a Tampa police officer. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has requested bid proposals from vendors to provide cameras for 1,200 deputies. [Times (2018)]
A body camera rides on the shoulder of a Tampa police officer. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has requested bid proposals from vendors to provide cameras for 1,200 deputies. [Times (2018)]
Published July 10
Updated July 10

TAMPA — Body-worn cameras might be coming to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, one of a few major agencies in Florida that have yet to equip deputies with the technology.

The Sheriff's Office is seeking proposals from vendors to provide cameras for about 1,200 deputies, according to a bid request documents dated June 30 and posted on the agency's web site.

"The HCSO is soliciting proposals from qualified and experienced companies to provide reliable cameras and integrated systems to capture video from a law enforcement deputy’s point of view or perspective," the request says. "HCSO requires the equipment to be commercially available with a video storage system to store, manage, retrieve and share the captured digital video."

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

In a news release Wednesday, Sheriff Chad Chronister said, “I am confident in the professionalism and integrity of our deputies, but I recognize the need for transparency to our citizens, particularly as it relates to the use of deadly force or the drawing of a firearm,"

The move is an about-face for Chronister and his office, whose leaders have opposed body cameras as other law enforcement agencies in Florida's large population centers have embraced the technology.

Miami-Dade police wear cameras. So do officers in Orlando and deputies in Broward, Orange and Duval counties.

Former Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said in 2014 he wasn’t convinced the benefits are worth the cost.

Chronister, who was appointed as Gee's successor in 2017 and elected in November to complete Gee's term, told the Tampa Bay Times in the runup to the election that he didn't support cameras. Gary Pruitt, a retired Tampa Police corporal and Chronister's sole opponent in the race, supported body cameras.

"From a budgetary prospective, the costs associated with digital video storage, maintenance, and retrieval would be a significant impact for taxpayers," Chronister said last year. "Additionally, a number of privacy concerns for deputies and the public remain undecided."

The agency expects to outfit its uniformed law enforcement personnel with the cameras, the news release says. The office has about 2,000 sworn personnel.

The estimated costs associated with the program won't be known until the Sheriff's Office receives more information through the bidding process. The Sheriff's Office will "work closely with our partners at the county" to identify potential funding sources for the program.

The award of the contract is contingent on the successful completion of a testing phase, among other factors. Among the requirements is "a firearm holster activation," the news release said. The proposals are due July 31 and the office expects to begin the testing phase shortly after that.

Body worn cameras have received attention around the country in recent years as police shootings have prompted demonstrations, sit-ins and disturbances. In Tampa Bay, calls for local law enforcement agencies to adopt the technology have surfaced periodically but agencies here have been slow to accept it.

Pinellas and Hernando deputies don't wear them. Neither do officers at the St. Petersburg Police Department, which has been discussing, researching and testing various types of cameras for some five years now. Pasco County sheriff's deputies are outfitted with cameras.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said the city is working to equip Tampa police officers. Currently, 60 of the department's 974 sworn officers use cameras as part of a pilot program. The city has submitted a federal grant application to help equip up to 600 more officers with body cameras.

Hillsborough's move comes after three shootings this year that highlighted how body cameras might have helped clarify what happened.

On March 19, Master Deputy Kevin Stabins shot 52-year-old Jesus Calderon while responding to an attempted suicide call at a home off Bearss Avenue in Tampa. Stabins told investigators Calderon refused to drop a knife he was holding and advanced toward him. A family member who witnessed the incident disputed the need to use deadly force. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office found that the shooting was justified.

One week later, Deputy Daniel Estanislau shot a 17-year-old boy after responding to a domestic violence call at an apartment complex on Skipper Road. The Sheriff's Office has said the boy refused to commands to drop an object he was holding. Investigators did not find a weapon on him. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office is still reviewing the case.

And last week, two deputies responding to a domestic disturbance in Ruskin shot 37-year-old Angel Noel Ramos Otero becaue, they say, he advanced on them with a knife. The incident is still under investigation.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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