Advertisement
  1. Opinion

Editorial: Tampa smart to move slowly on police body cameras

Master Patrol Officer Clif Griffin holds a body camera in his hand. 60 Tampa Police Officers are now using body cameras during traffic stops, building searches and many other law enforcement activities. The officer pushes a button and it records video and audio of the interactions between an officer the public.
Master Patrol Officer Clif Griffin holds a body camera in his hand. 60 Tampa Police Officers are now using body cameras during traffic stops, building searches and many other law enforcement activities. The officer pushes a button and it records video and audio of the interactions between an officer the public.
Published Mar. 9, 2015

The Tampa Police Department has entered the new frontier of body cameras for officers by starting small and partnering with the University of South Florida to monitor their use. The cameras are a positive step toward increased accountability and transparency at the agency. As it incorporates cameras into daily policing, the department will need to educate citizens about the new technology and their rights. The department also should remain open to tweaking its policies to ensure that both the public and the police are served fairly by the new tool.

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor announced on Friday that a small group of officers has been trained and outfitted with body cameras. New department procedures require the officers to wear the cameras throughout their shifts, download the video immediately and review footage before writing a report. The devices have a nearly 12-hour battery life and must be activated in nine specific instances, including: traffic stops, pursuits, physical arrests, potentially confrontational citizen complaints and suspicious person or vehicle calls. Failing to activate the cameras can result in disciplinary action. If used as directed, these clear criteria should provide a window into law enforcement's interaction with the public.

Sixty officers — 18 in each district and six members of the bicycle patrol — volunteered to participate in the program's yearlong rollout. Purchased from Taser International in January, the 60 cameras cost $83,000. The department expects to spend $287,000 for the purchase, maintenance and digital storage over a five-year period. As with police dash camera video, body camera footage will be made available through public records requests and kept for at least 90 days, unless is it marked as evidence in a criminal case. That might not be long enough.

In adopting body cameras, Tampa police join law enforcement agencies around the country that are increasingly embracing the new technology. Studies have shown that camera use among officers can help decrease citizen complaints, on-the-job injuries and cases of resisting arrest, all points Castor mentioned last week. With responsible use, body cameras have the potential to increase the public's trust in law enforcement by serving as an unbiased witness to events that otherwise might be disputed. They could be an important third eye in a society that lately is rife with examples of controversial police shootings.

Tampa's measured approach contrasts significantly with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, which purchased 415 body cameras for its officers in February and prompted Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe to raise legitimate concerns about the preserving of public records. The Legislature also is preparing to weigh in on the public records issues raised by police body cameras. A Senate committee is scheduled to hear legislation (SB 248) today that would create too many broad public records exemptions for camera videos, with blanket exceptions applied for video taken inside residences, at the scene of medical emergencies and on school campuses. Creating such sweeping exceptions to the public records law would undermine the very reason for having the body cameras, and these are the sorts of issues that ought to be resolved before every police officer wears a camera.

It makes sense to start small and work out the kinks before expanding body camera use to the entire department. Serious concerns remain about the cameras, including the length of time data can be stored and retrieved, ease of access to footage and citizens' rights. Those issues deserve thoughtful consideration and explanation to the public. But Tampa's modest rollout is a reasonable move that should help determine how effective the cameras can be in improving relationships between the public and the police.

Advertisement

This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge