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For now, Clearwater police will not use body cameras

CLEARWATER — Citing recurring costs and a lack of complaints about excessive use of force, the Clearwater Police Department has decided not to outfit its 170 patrol officers with body cameras.

The move is more evidence of a divide among Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies over the technology's benefits.

Some embrace it: Gulfport police officers have been equipped with the cameras for five years, Pasco deputies started using them this year, and Tampa police are testing out 60 cameras. Other departments are not convinced. The sheriff's offices in Pinellas and Hillsborough do not use them.

This summer, Clearwater police outfitted five officers, each working different shifts, with Taser body cameras for a four-week pilot program.

"I definitely see the value of the item, and somewhere down the road it may become a regular tool in law enforcement," said Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter. "I just think it's a little premature right now to jump the gun and do something."

Clearwater officers tested two camera models, one that can be clipped onto the front of an officer's uniform and another that features a camera attached to a pair of glasses.

Officers could turn their cameras on or off and view footage on a screen that connected with the devices via Bluetooth, but they could not edit or delete video. After their shifts, they placed the cameras into a docking station for uploading.

During the trial period, they recorded 482 videos. Many of the officers had "mixed reactions" to the cameras, according to a report written by patrol Maj. Eric Gandy.

The cameras can capture evidence and clear false complaints, but some officers had trouble remembering to turn them on or off, or later realized that the lens was accidentally pointed away from what the officer was seeing, which "would certainly result in accusations of cover up," the report reads.

The department is exploring another alternative: in-car camera systems. Right now, only about a dozen cruisers are equipped with video.

Dashboard cameras have some benefits that body cameras don't have, the chief said. Unlike body cameras that need to be manually turned on and off and then downloaded by an officer after a shift, dash cams can turn on when a cruiser's lights are activated and can automatically download video.

The annual costs associated with body cameras also weighed heavily on Clearwater's decision. If all officers were outfitted with a camera, they would produce nearly 200,000 videos in a year, the report says. It would cost about $235,000 every year to store and review video, as well as process public records requests.

The report also mentioned the conflict between transparency and the privacy of residents: "Law enforcement frequently encounters people in crisis, inconsolable victims, and horrific scenes. These videos have no business being distributed to satisfy the prurient interests of a society infatuated by social media."

Nationwide, several departments have purchased body cameras in an effort to build trust with the public. Clearwater police do not have that problem, the chief said. In the last five years, the agency has received 19 excessive use of force complaints and only two were sustained.

"We're not having the experience that some other places are having," Slaughter said. "We have a community that's very supportive of us and very trusting."

Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.