1. Opinion

Editorial: Tampa's wise move on police body cameras

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor's prompt move to seek a federal grant to help pay for equipping up to 600 additional police officers with body cameras should better protect both law enforcement and the public. The cameras are a proven technology, and they have been used with success around the nation and the region. With so many privately owned surveillance cameras and bystanders' cell phones recording virtually everything that occurs in public, an up close angle from an officer's body camera could add another valuable perspective.

Castor has signed off on seeking a $300,000 federal grant for the body cameras and plans to match it with $300,000 in city money in her first budget, which would take effect in October. Tampa is one of eight cities competing for the Justice Department grant, and the winner is expected to be announced in September. This is a practical approach to dramatically ramp up use of the cameras in Tampa, where only 60 of the 974 sworn officers use them now.

Properly used, police body cameras can help increase trust within the community. They can provide meaningful context about situations involving a police shooting or another confrontation. They can reveal serious misconduct, such as the video that showed a Baltimore police officer planting evidence in a drug case in 2017. They also can exonerate officers who act professionally, such as the Cleveland officers who faced an armed suspect in a 2015 domestic violence call. Sometimes they raise more questions, such as the body camera footage released last month that shows an Oklahoma City police officer shooting and wounding an eighth grader after hearing shots that turned out to be from a BB gun. The officer was not charged, but the video raises questions about his judgment.

More police body cameras could have been helpful recently in Tampa. Three officers were recently fired for what Chief Brian Dugan described as a pattern of bad behavior that included the failure to properly dispose of seized drugs. One of the officers had switched his body camera off during an encounter with a man who claimed he was threatened, and it would have been helpful if more body cameras had recorded the incident.

The use of body cameras and even dash cameras in police cars is spotty around Tampa Bay. The Tampa Police Department uses both, and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office uses body cameras. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office uses dash cameras. The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department use neither. St. Petersburg in particular has sent mixed messages, where officials said last fall that an experiment with body cameras had been delayed by technical problems. A department spokeswoman said Tuesday they are still waiting for a technology update.

As Castor acknowledges, the implementation of body cameras is not easy. Storing the data and responding to public records requests for the footage can be expensive. Training officers to follow procedures in turning the cameras on and off at the appropriate times is critical. But the time and expense are worth the effort if the body cameras serve their purpose to tell a more complete story of encounters with the police and how the officers reacted.

Castor is moving quickly to fulfill a campaign promise, and the former police chief is sending a positive message about both her confidence in the professionalism of the police department and her willingness to hold officers accountable when things go wrong. Police body cameras have become standard equipment across the nation, and it's time to embrace them throughout Tampa Bay.