Police body cameras are a proven technology that protect both officers and the public, but St. Petersburg acts like the cameras are still in the beta testing phase. While body cameras remain controversial and don’t always reflect the whole story of a police encounter, they have been used with success by departments around the region and country. St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway, who seems to be dragging his feet, should either give them a try as he promised or explain to residents why he won’t.
St. Petersburg was supposed to start testing the use of body cameras more than three years ago, but Holloway backed off in favor of trying mounted dash cameras in 15 patrol cars. That program never moved forward when the City Council refused to approve buying the cameras, with one council member calling them a waste of money because St. Petersburg doesn’t have a “bad department.”
Body cameras are not tools for busting “bad departments.” They are instruments of transparency that help increase trust with the community. But now St. Petersburg apparently is delayed by technical problems in implementing body cameras that only record interactions when an officer’s gun or Taser is drawn and can go back and store footage from 30 seconds prior.
There’s no reason for so much hand-wringing and hesitation. Standard body cameras provide critical context about situations that result in a shooting or other physical confrontation. It serves neither the officer involved nor the public to see only the moment shots are fired without capturing the circumstances that led to it. Such footage can reveal grievous police misconduct, such as the Baltimore officer who was caught on video last year planting evidence in a drug case. But it also has exonerated officers who acted professionally, such as the Cleveland officers who encountered an armed suspect on a domestic violence call in 2015. Video from the incident depicted one officer, who had been shot himself, calmly talking to the suspect and trying to defuse the situation.
Videos from body cameras and dash cameras are becoming standard evidence in police-involved gun incidents around the country. But they aren’t the only cameras running. Any shooting that takes place in a public space is likely to be captured by a bystander’s cell phone or a surveillance camera on a building. Police are better-served when their point of view also is represented, telling a more complete story.
St. Petersburg is not alone in shying away from body cameras. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri opposes them because he doesn’t think they are the right response to community mistrust of police. But the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office does use dash cameras. The Tampa Police Department uses both, but like the St. Petersburg Police Department the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office uses neither. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office uses body cameras.
Studies show officers wearing body cameras are less likely to use force and the target of fewer citizen complaints. St. Petersburg officials should stop equivocating and promptly move forward with a large-scale experiment or tell residents why they don’t support such common technology.