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After five years of indecision, St. Pete officers may finally get body cameras

St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway says he always supported equipping his officers with body cameras. Is this the year that it will finally happen?
St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway demonstrates the body camera that he and six officers will be testing during an upcoming pilot program. The chief says the St. Petersburg Police Department will become the next Tampa Bay law enforcement agency to adopt the technology. [KATHRYN VARN | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — It has been more than five years since Police Chief Tony Holloway expressed cautious support for body cameras.

He liked the idea of bringing them to St. Petersburg, he said in September 2014, two months after he was hired, but he wanted to make sure the technology and policies fit the needs of his department.

That non-committal posture would continue for years as body camera programs proliferated across the state and country. Yet the technology stalled in St. Petersburg as the chief was appointed to help lead a national body camera task force, his own agency’s pilot program failed, and mounting public pressure grew so tense that a civil rights leader and the chief squared off over the issue during a 2018 City Council meeting.

Now Holloway has taken his firmest stance yet: He told the Tampa Bay Times that he supports equipping St. Petersburg’s 450 uniformed officers with body cameras. If an upcoming pilot program is successful, the chief says he will ask Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council to fund the technology.

“The decision’s going to be this year," Holloway said. “We’ve been beating this up enough now, so let’s just roll it out."

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

His preferred choice, a brand called BodyWorn, differs from traditional body cameras that are constantly recording and saving video. St. Petersburg’s cameras would only start saving video when an officer pulls out their firearm or Taser, plus up to two minutes prior to that point.

A successful rollout would make St. Petersburg the next Tampa Bay area law enforcement agency to adopt body cameras, which have become increasingly used as a police accountability tool since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by an officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Compared to the rest of the state, the bay area region was slow to warm up to the technology. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and Gulfport Police Department were the exceptions. But that is quickly changing.

The Tampa Police Department secured a federal grant to outfit at least 600 officers with the cameras to fulfill a campaign pledge made by Mayor Jane Castor, herself a former police chief. And the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is nearing the end of a test program that started in October.

That leaves the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the Clearwater Police Department as the last of Tampa Bay’s largest law enforcement agencies who still oppose body cameras. And that likely won’t change anytime soon.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri remains flat-out against them, although he said he will keep an eye on the results of St. Petersburg’s trial. Deputy Clearwater Police Chief Eric Gandy, who ran a trial for his agency in 2015, told the Times that his agency believe the costs outweigh the benefits, but his agency is open to future technologies that address those concerns.

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

Holloway said his biggest reservation with body cameras that record and save an officer’s entire shift is that storing and maintaining hours of footage is expensive and time-consuming. He also has philosophical concerns that such devices would infringe on the privacy of residents, and intrude on vulnerable moments between his officers and the public, such as when officers talk to a witness who wants to remain anonymous.

By limiting what the cameras will preserve — basically when an officer uses serious force to subdue, or defend themselves — Holloway said that will fulfill his goal of strengthening public trust.

But officers will also have the option of activating the cameras themselves, if they feel the need to do so.

“I’ve never said I was against body cameras," Holloway said. “I just said I wanted to make sure that we’re capturing the things that we need to capture.”

The agency was set to try a similar product in 2018, but a technical glitch on the first day of the pilot program sent them back to the drawing board. Critics at the time were unhappy with those devices, saying officers could use excessive force without drawing their guns or Tasers, negating the cameras.

In moving forward on body cameras, Holloway said St. Petersburg will not widely adopt another common video tool it has lagged in: cameras mounted to the dashboards of patrol vehicles. While some agencies equip every patrol vehicle with them, St. Petersburg only uses them in DUI enforcement and training vehicles.

In the upcoming test run, six officers — including Holloway — will wear body cameras for 45 days. The pilot will start once a vendor finishes retrofitting their uniforms with chest pockets needed to hold the device, which is basically a smart phone with a larger lens. Holloway said he doesn’t yet know how much it would cost to equip his 450 uniformed officers, but estimated it could come in around $500,000 or so.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway shows one of the body cameras he and five officers will test during an upcoming pilot program. The chief says the St. Petersburg Police Department will become the next Tampa Bay law enforcement agency to adopt the technology. [KATHRYN VARN | Times]

Whether Holloway’s plan has political support remains unclear. Mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby declined to make Kriseman available for an interview. Kirby said the chief has not yet briefed the mayor, though they had met as recently as Feb. 10.

“The mayor has always deferred to Chief Holloway’s expertise on this issue and has not supported police wearing body cameras until the chief is comfortable with the technology,” Kirby said. “I am ... confident the Chief will brief the mayor on this new cost-effective technology and keep him apprised of the results as we move through the pilot project.”

Six council members did not return multiple requests for comment. Council Member Brandi Gabbard declined to comment, saying she had “not spoken with the chief about this matter.” Council Member Darden Rice also responded:

“I lean to yes,” she said in a text message to the Times. She said she hasn’t heard any details yet, but said if Tampa’s mayor, a former police chief, supports using body cameras then St. Petersburg can certainly do the same.

One key group likely to oppose the chief’s plan is the police union, which opposes body cameras.

“You guys have heard this over and over again from me," former Suncoast Police Benevolent Association president George Lofton, a veteran officer, told City Council members in November, “but we don’t have an agency that needs to be policed from the outside. We do a great job with that from the inside."

The union’s current leadership maintains that stance, said executive director and general counsel Sasha Lohn. Rank-and-file officers are concerned that, even with the limited window for saving video, they’ll still have a chilling effect on their interactions with the public, said union president Jonathan Vazquez, who is also a St. Petersburg officer. He put it this way:

“The fear that we’ve been hearing from the community is one that, ‘This is constantly recording, and we don’t feel comfortable giving a statement or having a very up-front conversation with you guys.'”

Editor’s note: This story has an updated response from City Council Member Darden Rice. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story attributed Rice’s comments to the wrong Council member.

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