After protests, Fla. sheriff changes mind about body cameras

The cameras would run the entire time they are worn, not just when a deputy draws a sidearm, which was originally planned


Tony Marrero
Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is a step closer to outfitting its deputies with body-worn cameras.

The County Commission on Wednesday voted 6-1 to allow Sheriff Chad Chronister to put out a new request for proposals to purchase cameras that would run full time, not just when a deputy draws a sidearm or stun gun, as Chronister originally planned.

The system would be more expensive, but worth it, Chronister told commissioners. He said the recent death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police made him decide to change course.

“I think there’s an opportunity to make history,” Chronister said. “I think there’s an opportunity to build trust through transparency to go to full-time body worn cameras.”

The Sheriff’s Office first put out a request for proposals from camera vendors last summer. After months of evaluation, Chronister told commissioners, he decided to go with a holster-activated system that started capturing video when deputies pull their service weapons or stun gun.

Then “the George Floyd murder happened,” Chronister said, sparking daily protests across the country and in Hillsborough that continue today. He decided to ask the commission for its blessing to seek another vendor proposal for a camera system that would activate, with some exceptions, “every time a deputy would be out of their car.”

“I think there’s an outcry by our public to be even more transparent,” he said.

A Sheriff’s Office news release issued after the meeting said the cameras would record “each call for service and daily work-related interactions between deputies and the public they serve.”

Chronister told the commissioners he estimated the total cost will be $14 million. That’s based on what other agencies of comparable size are paying for their cameras and data management systems, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said.

How much that would increase Chronister’s request was not made clear during the meeting and the Sheriff’s Office did not have an estimate.

Chronister said the office hopes to piggyback on another local agency’s request for proposals from vendors. The County Commission would then vote on a contract.

“I know that some may find this hard to believe, but our deputies are calling for this as well,” he said.

He said research shows that complaints against deputies about use of force and other incidents drop when cameras are rolling.

County Administrator Mike Merrill recommended the move to commissioners, calling it “the right way to go.”

“The additional cost is well worth the benefits to the community,” Merrill said.

Commission Chairman Les Miller, Vice Chairwoman Kimberly Overman and commissioners Sandy Murman, Ken Hagan, Pat Kemp, and Mariella Smith all agreed.

“The transparency is vitally, vitally important,” Miller said.

Commissioner Stacy White voted no. White said he might support a holster-activated system but didn’t think a full-time camera system would be worth the cost. He also cited privacy concerns.

“I’m sensitive to what’s going on across the country but cell phone footage has been able to document and memorialize these horrendous acts that have gone on around this country,” White said. “We don’t seem to really have had problems with documenting that incredibly small number of bad apples in law enforcement.”

Chronister said he would have to hire three employees to store the video and handle public records requests, redacting the footage according to exemptions in public records law.

“It’s not cheap, it’s not easy, there are pros and cons to every course of action, but this is a necessary course of action in our community at this point in time,” Smith said.

The vote marked another step toward bringing Tampa Bay’s local law enforcement agencies more in line with many of their counterparts in Florida and across the country. Local agencies have been slow to adopt camera technology.

The Tampa Police Department is moving forward with the purchase of 650 body-worn cameras, one for every officer through the rank of corporal. City officials earlier in the year had decided to hold off on the purchase due to concerns about a financial hit from the pandemic. Then, Mayor Jane Castor announced on June 2 that the city would refinance bonds to help free up up money for the $7.4 million purchase. Two days later, the City Council unanimously approved the purchase from vendor Axon.

Tampa police officers are required to activate their cameras during most interactions with the public, including traffic stops, pursuits and arrests.

The same day Castor made her announcement, St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway and three of his officers were outfitted with cameras from a company called Body Worn.

The cameras look like a cell phone and are worn in a pocket in the front of the uniform. When officers pull their service weapon or stun gun from a holster, the camera begins recording. The camera can be preset to capture footage in the seconds leading up to the moment the gun or stun gun is pulled. After a pilot period of several weeks, Holloway will make a recommendation to the City Council on whether to purchase the cameras.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office outfitted its deputies with cameras in 2015. Sheriff Chris Nocco has said the cameras have “exceeded expectations,” helping resolve citizen complaints and shed light on deputy misconduct.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office does not use the technology. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has remained against them but said earlier this year that he would keep an eye on St. Petersburg’s trial program.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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