ST. PETERSBURG — After six years of hemming and hawing, two pilot programs and a summer of protests against police violence and racial injustice, the city will finally equip its officers with body-worn cameras.
The City Council on Thursday unanimously approved purchasing 500 body cameras for officers and 450 in-vehicle cameras from industry leader Axon Enterprise to equip the St. Petersburg Police Department.
Those numbers ensure all roughly 386 uniformed police officers will have a camera, and there will be extras for detectives who work in uniform in an off-duty capacity. All marked patrol vehicles will also have cameras installed.
The cameras plus installation, training and storage software will cost about $6.76 million.
Axon won the contract over six other bidders in part because it assured the department it will fully equip the force by the end of the year. That will make good on a promise Mayor Rick Kriseman offered in June in the early days of the protests following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
Assistant Chief Antonio Gilliam, who pitched the cameras to City Council, said while the devices will provide more accountability, their adoption does not reflect a lack of professionalism within the ranks. In 2020, he said, the department has initiated 19 total internal affairs investigations, while officers have received 173 commendations from citizens.
“The body-worn cameras will only exhibit the professionalism day in and day out," he said.
The Tampa Bay area’s biggest law enforcement agencies had been slow to adopt the technology — the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, which equipped its officers in 2015, being the exception. But most have recently pivoted or hastened their plans to embrace the technology as pressure has mounted nationwide for increased police accountability.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who had long resisted body cameras, announced two weeks ago that he will outfit all of his patrol deputies, nearly 800, with the devices. Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter is rolling out cameras for his officers next year. The Pinellas Park Police Department announced this week it started a trial program. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office issued body cameras to all its patrol deputies in August. The Tampa Police Department is in the process of buying cameras.
St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway first raised the idea of adopting body cameras in September 2014, two months after he was hired, but said he wanted to study the technology and policies. That process took six years.
The cameras St. Petersburg selected can be attached to officers’ uniforms a number of different ways, including with a magnet or a harness. While they will always be on, they won’t always store video.
The devices will idle in what Gilliam described to City Council as a “passive setting." The cameras will record a rolling 30 seconds of footage, discarding everything after that. When the cameras are activated, they will save the preceding 30 seconds and all the footage from that moment forward.
The cameras' recording function can be activated manually or automatically through certain actions. Both St. Petersburg police and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office will use body-worn camera systems that automatically begin recording when officers unholster their firearms or Tasers.
St. Petersburg’s system also links to video cameras that will be mounted in police vehicles looking forward and back. They’ll automatically activate when an officer turns on the vehicle’s emergency lights. Also, an officer’s body-worn camera will automatically activate and save video when it is within 30 feet of a police vehicle that has its emergency lights on.
Gilliam told City Council that the department will issue a general order that will require officers to manually turn their body cameras on to record certain situations, including when an arrest or detainment is anticipated, when conducting a traffic stop or an interview, or when responding to a call for service.
While the video collected will be part of the public record, Gilliam said some footage will be exempt from public disclosure. That includes interviews of juveniles or investigations of certain crimes, such as sex offenses. An officer accidentally recording their lunch or dinner would also be exempt.