As Officer Cliff Griffin pulled over a white PT Cruiser on Friday afternoon on Nebraska Avenue, his hand moved to the pocket on the front of his Tampa police uniform. A tone sounded as he hit a button on a battery pack underneath. From that moment, everything Griffin did was recorded through a tiny lens perched on his shoulder.
Minutes later, he played back the recording on a laptop computer inside his car. Through a frame that bounced up and down with each of his steps, it showed Griffin walking to the car and played back his short conversation with the driver before he sent him on his way.
Griffin is one of 60 Tampa police officers who began using body cameras this week while on patrol. Chief Jane Castor announced their deployment at a news conference Friday, describing the technology as a tool to better serve the city.
"We have an outstanding relationship with the community, but we see these cameras as the next tool to build upon that relationship," Castor said. "My prediction is it may improve police behavior a little bit, it will improve citizen behavior a whole lot and it's going to be a whole new reality show for the rest of the citizens."
The Tampa Police Department is the second major law enforcement agency in the Tampa Bay area to use the cameras, which are a trend among law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office quietly equipped its deputies with 415 body cameras in early February. Thus far, there have been no concerns or technical difficulties, Pasco sheriff's spokesman Eddie Daniels said. But it's too early to tell whether they are effective because cases involving body cameras are still under investigation, he said.
"It seemed to have been welcomed graciously among deputies," Daniels said. "The feeling was this would help in making sure they were safe whenever they were conducting their duties. Additionally, citizens in a way would feel protected because the whole interaction is recorded."
Castor cited studies that show officers in departments that use the cameras receive fewer citizen complaints, on-the-job injuries and cases of people resisting arrest. The Tampa Police Department has agreed to be part of a yearlong study being done by the University of South Florida that will examine the effects of the cameras.
Tampa police have been considering body cameras for about a year. In December, they agreed to an initial purchase deal with TASER International for 60 Axon Flex cameras for a total of about $83,000. Over five years, the city will pay $287,220 for the purchase, maintenance of the cameras and a digital storage system that will collect the recordings.
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The cameras have been distributed to 18 officers in each of the city's three police districts, along with six bicycle patrol officers. The lens portion weighs less than a typical officer's badge and can be mounted almost anywhere on a police uniform. It connects to a battery pack capable of powering the device for about 12 hours — about as long as an officer's work shift.
In record mode, the camera retains all footage seen through the lens for 30 seconds before the button was pressed. The device also continues to record for 30 seconds after an officer presses the button to stop.
Castor and her command staff consulted with other agencies while crafting regulations for their use. The policy, made public Friday, mandates that officers must record their activities during specific situations, including traffic stops, pursuits, physical arrests and use of force situations. It also requires that officers download and review their videos before writing police reports.
"I believe it will just become such a habit that the officers will just hit it automatically," Castor said. "The reality is, whatever an officer is doing on the street, someone is videotaping it."
Officers are able to download and review the videos in their patrol cars, but they are not able to edit or delete. Recordings will be stored for at least 90 days, unless they are marked as evidence in a criminal case.
Many civic and community leaders around the nation have called for the expanded use of body cameras after summer protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the police shooting of an unarmed teen.
Proponents say the cameras promote accountability and increase resident safety. Critics have expressed privacy and public records concerns.
The debate has made its way to the Florida Legislature.
A House bill filed in January initially sought to require every police officer in the state to wear a camera while on duty. The bill's sponsor, Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, later altered the bill, which would now simply require law enforcement agencies to develop a set of guidelines for cameras if they choose to use them.
A different bill in the Senate would limit the circumstances in which body camera video would be released to the public, including if it shows the inside of private residences, the scenes of a medical emergency, or if it depicts someone younger than 14.
Castor said the Tampa police will tweak their camera policy in accordance with whatever laws are passed.
Times staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan on Twitter.