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The body cameras are coming — to Tampa, anyway

Mayor Jane Castor made a campaign promise to outfit Tampa cops with body cameras. The former police chief is proving true to her word.  [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times ]
Mayor Jane Castor made a campaign promise to outfit Tampa cops with body cameras. The former police chief is proving true to her word. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jun. 4, 2019

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TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor's pledge to equip Tampa Police officers with body cameras has become one of her first campaign promises to move forward.

Castor recently signed off on a federal grant application to help equip up to 600 more officers with body cameras. Currently, only 60 of the department's 974 sworn officers use cameras.

"That's happening," Castor said last week when asked about the status of the body cameras. In addition to the $300,000 grant officials are counting on, Castor said she plans to add another $300,000 in city money to the upcoming budget, which will be approved in September.

The cameras will cost $965 each and will require three new civilian hires to administer the program. Police estimate it will cost $1.9 million over the next three years to store the footage, said Tampa Police Department spokesman Steve Hegarty.

Assistant Chief Elias Vazquez told Tampa's Citizen Review Board about the plan last week, saying he though the department "had a good shot' at winning the grant. Tampa is one of eight cities competing for the Department of Justice award, he told the advisory board, which reviews police activities and supports body cameras.

The grant winner likely will be announced in September and the department will begin implementing the program as early as October, Hegarty said.

Vazquez said the recent firing of three officers was a timely example of why the cameras are needed. After a seven-month investigation, the officers were fired for what Police Chief Brian Dugan described as a pattern of bad behavior that included failures to document detentions and searches and to properly dispose of seized drugs.

One of the officers was found to have switched off his body camera during an encounter in which a man said he had been threatened by two officers who were investigating a stolen vehicle.

READ MORE: Tampa police officers fired

The goal is to eventually have all sworn officers wear body cameras, Vazquez told the board, but the first step will be to distribute them to patrol officers and specialty units like street tactical teams and bike patrols.

Castor, who served as police chief between 2009 and 2015, said she hoped the bulk of the cameras would be deployed by the end of the year.

The local chapters of the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union have submitted letters of support, and the Citizen Review Board has voted to do the same.

Body cameras have received plenty of attention around the country in recent years as highly scrutinized and widely publicized police shootings have prompted demonstrations, sit-ins and disturbances. In Tampa Bay, the debate has been less intense than in some other large metro areas, but calls for local law enforcement agencies have surfaced periodically on both sides of the bay.

READ MORE: Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies are all over the map on body cams

Pasco County Sheriff's deputies wear them. But Hillsborough and Pinellas deputies don't. Neither do officers at the St. Petersburg Police Department, which has been discussing, researching and testing various types of cameras for nearly five years now.

After retiring as Tampa police chief, Castor launched a consulting practice. One of her clients was the city of Miami, which incurred serious headaches trying to implement cameras, she said.

Miami had far more public records requests than anticipated, which increased costs. So did running fiber optic cables and upgrading electricity at station houses to accommodate the cameras.

"It was just one thing after another. It was a nightmare," she said.

Those lessons should help Tampa get its program into place more smoothly, but there are bound to be bumps, she said. Just getting officers used to turning on the cameras can be tricky.

Younger officers tend to master the rules and procedures quickly, she said.

But long-time veterans?

"It's just difficult to train an old dog to do new tricks," she said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.