NEW PORT RICHEY — While other Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies evaluate and test the use of body cameras by officers, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office is going all in.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco announced Thursday that his agency will begin using more than 400 of the cameras in February — enough to outfit every deputy on patrol.
"The Pasco Sheriff's Office would rather be out there leading the way," he said in a news conference. "If they're actually going to reduce violence on law enforcement officers and reduce complaints, I'd rather get them on the street as soon as we can."
Nocco said the Taser Axon cameras, which the agency purchased with $400,000 in federal forfeiture dollars this year, will lead to more plea deals, increased transparency and heightened officer safety, as well as the ability to critique how deputies handle incidents.
Law enforcement leaders across the country are adopting the technology after widespread criticism of police tactics following the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., this summer. Officer Darren Wilson was not wearing a body camera during the shooting.
They are not widely deployed yet in the Tampa Bay area, though some Gulfport police have used them for five years as an alternative to more expensive in-car recording systems.
Plant City police are in a trial phase, Tampa police are reviewing proposals and the city of Clearwater plans a pilot program for the spring.
In St. Petersburg, Chief Tony Holloway plans to test cameras in May or June, but like many in law enforcement he remains skeptical of their effectiveness at stemming violent confrontations.
"Body cameras are not going to instill trust in a community. It's just technology," he said. "We as law enforcement are going to have to put that trust into the community."
Critics of the cameras question their impact on citizen privacy and their efficacy in holding law enforcement officers accountable. They point to this month's decision by a grand jury not to indict a white New York City police officer who used a chokehold on a black man, a banned tactic that resulted in the man's death, even though the incident was captured on video.
Nocco said the cameras, which also record sound, will be a tool, not a cure-all.
Pasco deputies had been requesting body cameras for some time, the sheriff said. The events in Ferguson just expedited the process. Citizens often record on-duty deputies, Nocco said, and a selective, heated clip from a longer encounter can cast a negative light on deputies. Now they'll have the ability to show the "whole story," he said.
Deputy Kristina Perez, who has worn a camera for the last two months, said she noticed the behavior of several people improve when she told them they were being recorded.
"It comes from a perspective of safety: officer safety, the safety of the public," she said. "When we make good arrests, this is evidence. All that can do is help in prosecution. I'm all for it."
The sheriff cited studies from California and Scotland that showed the use of body cameras reduced complaints against law enforcement agencies, increased the rate of plea deals in cases with video, and reduced assaults against officers.
Videos will be used in training for evaluating deputy actions and finding areas to improve, Nocco said.
While patrol officers perform official duties, their camera must remain on, according to a draft policy governing the cameras. Officers must inform citizens of the recording as soon as is possible or practical.
At the end of a shift, officers will upload their recordings, which they cannot manipulate or edit, according to the draft policy. Deputies may review recordings when preparing reports and getting ready to give court testimony, but deleting files requires a written request. Deputies may also be banned from seeing a video if his or her actions are under review.
Specific rules govern privacy concerns. If a deputy responds to a private residence and finds that no crime has been committed, the deputy must turn off the camera if the resident requests. Crime victims younger than 16 may not be recorded. Adult victims of a sexual crime may also request not to be recorded.
Lawyer Craig Laporte of criminal defense firm Proly, Laporte & Mulligan, who has represented Pasco deputies, said the cameras point the criminal justice system to the truth.
"There are an awful lot of people who complain about deputy behavior, and this is an opportunity for when those complaints come in, for there to be a determination of what exactly happened," Laporte said. "I think it will discourage people from making false claims against law enforcement officers. At the same time . . . it is going to potentially reduce the likelihood that (deputies) may step over the line."
Contact Claire McNeill at email@example.com or (813) 909-4613.