TAMPA — Early in the morning after Independence Day, two Hillsborough sheriff's deputies responding to a domestic violence call in Ruskin shot a man they say threatened them.
Sheriff Chad Chronister said he wishes the deputies had been wearing cameras that activated when they drew their guns.
"I would love to be able to release that video and show the community how well deputies did trying to de-escalate that situation," Chronister said.
It was the third time since March that Chronister's deputies had shot someone. But even before those other two cases, Chronister says he had decided it was time to explore technology that could ensure a camera was rolling when his deputies fired their guns.
This month, the Sheriff's Office announced it is seeking proposals from vendors to provide cameras for 1,200 deputies — all of his uniformed sworn personnel. The proposals must include a holster activation feature to be eligible.
"I think it's extremely important because what a lot of people are concerned with, I believe, is was this use of force justified or unjustified," he said. "There's a public outcry for more and more transparency and I'm certainly committed to that."
But Chronister said until he gets the proposals back, he won't have enough information to make a key decision: Other than the sidearm activation, just how often will deputies be required to record, if at all?
A lot has changed in the body-worn camera industry in the last five years.
Law enforcement agencies seeking to purchase camera systems had relatively few options when it came to the technology and the vendors who could supply it. The systems had to be manually activated by officers who had to remember to press a button in the heat of a call. That meant the cameras sometimes remained off during the types of incidents that agencies and the public most wanted recorded.
But the number of companies offering camera systems has grown exponentially, and the technology continues to improve.
In 2017, Taser International unveiled its Signal Sidearm system. Touted as the first of its kind, the system features a holster sensor that wirelessly alerts any camera on the system within 30 feet to begin recording when a gun is drawn. The system can store up to two minutes of video prior to when a holster sensor is activated so investigators can review what led up to drawing of the gun.
The company, now called Axon, also sells sensors that activate the company's body cameras and dashboard cameras when a police cruiser's door has opened or its lights have been switched on,
Many agencies across the country are looking closely at the technology, said Michael White, a professor at Arizona State University who has studied body-worn cameras in law enforcement.
Some in law enforcement have expressed concerns that some types of automatic activation would limit officer discretion over when they record, White said. But it's hard to argue against recording when a gun is drawn.
"Every agency wants to avoid the situation where there's a shooting and the officer didn't have time to activate the camera," White said. "The automatic activation takes the human element out of the equation."
Nearly half of all the law enforcement agencies in the United States have some type of body-worn camera system, and most still rely on officers to manually activate them. Activation policies vary, but many have policies similar to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department, which require their personnel to record all sorts of activity, including traffic stops, arrests and citizen encounters related to official actions.
The more video that is recorded, however, the more data that needs to be reviewed and stored, which increases costs. Depending on the activation policy and an officer's level of activity, officers typically record between two and four hours of video during a 10 hour shift, White said. Videos also are considered public record and must be redacted before they are released, which adds to the costs.
Agencies often review and adjust their own policies as they figure out what works best for them and as technology improves and becomes more affordable, White said.
"They're almost like living documents," he said, "and that's a good thing."
Last year, when he was running for election to the Sheriff's seat he'd been appointed to in 2017, Chronister said he wasn't ready to adopt body cameras because of concerns about cost and privacy issues. But he also said he was open to considering new technology that would increase transparency and accountability.
That's why he disagreed with a recent Tampa Bay Times report that called his decision to seek proposals from camera vendors an "about face." He said he still has the same concerns about cost and privacy but is ready to explore holster-activated technology to determine if vendors can provide equipment and data storage at a manageable price.
"My position remains the same, and that's open minded," he said.
He said his open-mindedness extends to the policy governing whether deputies would be required to turn on their cameras during more routine duties.
As he considers whether to move forward, Chronister said he has to be mindful of his office's other pressing needs, especially the costs of hiring new deputies to keep up with the county's growth. If he decides to move forward with cameras, he would seek grant funding and ask the County Commission for a budget increase.
Chronister's decision drew praise from Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren and Public Defender Julie Holt.
Holt said her experience with video evidence that comes from Tampa police's cameras have proven the technology's value. The video often confirms her clients' accounts of what happened, she said.
"It's an objective piece of evidence," Holt said. "It doesn't tell you the whole story, but whether you're law enforcement, a lawyer or the community, it gives you something independent to look at it."
Holt said she supports a broader activation policy beyond just holster sensors, though she is wary of the potential cost to her office associated with storing and processing so much video evidence. (The Tampa Police Department is also looking to expand its program beyond it's current 60 cameras, adding to the potential load).
Warren, who is tasked with determining whether Hillsborough law enforcement officers' use of force is justified, has long supported body cameras. He said the video evidence has helped his prosecutors obtain convictions and he's confident he could find a way to cover additional costs associated with processing and storing more video.
"Those costs are dwarfed by the public benefit," Warren said.
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.