Body cameras coming to major Fla. sheriff's office

The sheriff said all 800 deputies will be outfitted, citing a public desire for the cameras

By Kathryn Varn
Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Body cameras are coming to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Friday.

All of the agency’s roughly 800 deputies in the field will wear the cameras, Gualtieri said, and a field trial involving 30 deputies will begin this month. But the sheriff emphasized the point of the trial is to work out logistics and kinks with the technology, not decide whether or not he wants to bring the cameras to the agency.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri addresses the County Commission during a meeting in March 2020.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri addresses the County Commission during a meeting in March 2020. (Photo/Douglas Clifford/Times)

“I’m not playing,” Gualtieri said. “We’re going to implement them across the board.”

The sheriff revealed the plan during an interview with the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board to determine its sheriff candidate recommendation for the Nov. 3 election. Gualtieri, a Republican, is running against Democrat Eliseo Santana. A Times reporter was sitting in on the interview for informational purposes but does not have a say in who the board recommends.

The program comes with a hefty price tag: about $3 million a year. Gualtieri said he will have to request funding from the Board of County Commissioners. Five of seven commissioners who were reached by the Times on Friday afternoon said they’ll support funding the program.

“I don’t have much choice," Commission Chair Pat Gerard said. "It’s what the public wants of most police agencies anymore. We will find the money.”

Commissioners Ken Welch, Kathleen Peters, Karen Seel and Janet Long also said they support the program. The county has a roughly $2.6 billion budget.

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Gualtieri is using the vendor Axon, a leading body camera manufacturer that also makes Tasers and formerly went by the name Taser International. The cameras automatically begin recording when a deputy pulls their weapon — an increasingly popular model that law enforcement leaders in St. Petersburg and Clearwater have also embraced. However, Gualtieri said deputies will be required to manually activate their cameras in certain situations, too, although he hasn’t worked out the details yet.

“There will be a time that it will be required that the cameras be manually activated, and we’re in the process of developing that policy," he said.

The sheriff had resisted body cameras until about six weeks ago, when he told the Times he was more open to the technology than he had been in the past and was exploring options. He previously had concerns about the cost and technology limitations of older models, particularly because the Sheriff’s Office already records thousands of incidents via dashboard cameras on the agency’s 560 patrol cruisers.

He’s comfortable with the current landscape, he said, and was influenced by the community after asking a “cross-section” of constituents whether police should have body cameras.

“And hands down people are saying, ‘Yes,’” he said.

But the sheriff warned the cameras won’t be a panacea and implored people to manage their expectations. He pointed to legislation that went into effect Thursday that protects body camera footage from public release when it’s captured inside a home, inside a healthcare or social services facility, or “in a place that a reasonable person would expect to be private.”

The Tampa Bay area was slow to adopt body cameras, but with Gualtieri’s pledge, all of the area’s major law enforcement agencies are at different stages of adopting the technology.

St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway will soon recommend a vendor for his officers to City Council members. Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter is rolling out cameras for his officers next year. The Pinellas Park Police Department announced this week it was starting a trial. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and Tampa Police Department are in the process of buying cameras.

The flurry of activity comes amid ongoing protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. While current demonstrations have called for defunding or abolishing police departments, body cameras have for several years been seen as a key tool for accountability and reform. But research into whether the cameras change officer behavior or citizens' view of police is mixed.

Gualtieri has recently enacted other reform measures, including the formation of a task force that investigates fatal police shootings and the expansion of his agency’s mental health unit.

“There have been several positive steps," Welch said, "and we just need to keep the progress going.”

©2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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