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Hillsborough County moves forward with full-time body-worn cameras

Posted at 12:37 PM, Jun 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-17 18:44:07-04

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is moving forward with full-time body-worn cameras after the Board of County Commissioners approved funding for the program on Tuesday.

Sheriff Chad Chronister said after the death of George Floyd, they were getting ready to enter into a contract phase on body cameras that activated when a weapon was pulled. Now, they have asked for funding for the full-time worn cameras.

“I think there’s an opportunity to make history. I think there’s an opportunity to take a giant leap, not a step, a giant leap forward in building trust through transparency by asking for approval to go to full-time body-worn cameras,” the sheriff told the board.

Chronister estimated the cost of the body-worn cameras to be between $9 to 14 million. Patrol deputies and K9 units would wear them.

“I think there’s an outcry from our public to be even more transparent and as your sheriff’s office, we want to be transparent. We know the trust through transparency that body-worn cameras provide. And at the same time -- some people might find this hard to believe -- our deputies are calling for this as well,” Chronister said. “They know how it protects them to have this video footage.”

The BOCC voted 6-1 on the motion.

“The transparency is vitally important. If we don’t do this, I think we’re going to have some feedback that we would not want to have,” said Chairman Les Miller.

Commissioner Stacey White voted no, explaining he would support holster activated cameras but had concerns with the impact of citizen’s privacy in their homes with Florida’s broad public records law.

“I’m in favor of the public records laws here in Florida. I think people should know what’s happening but again I say that with a lot of great comfort because there are a lot of exemptions. Medical, mental health, whatever it may be. And at the same time if a deputy ever finds themselves in a position they would have to deploy any type of force that would supersede those exemptions and once again our community would be able to see that,” Chronister said.

Chronister said he would need to hire three full-time people to help store, redact and handle public records requests.

The plan calls for each uniformed deputy to be equipped with a body-worn camera, full time outside their car, with the exception of breaks. The camera would roll to capture encounters between the deputy and the public. The specific parameters will be laid out in a policy, followed by training for each deputy wearing a camera.

Chronister explained they will be able to piggyback off an RFP already out, and he hopes to move forward and enter a contract to start the implementation phase in about 45 to 60 days.

“It’s strictly about accountability and transparency. I think it protects both our community and the deputies out there working,” he said.

Other departments across the Tampa Bay area are also starting to add cameras.

The Tampa Police Department previously announced plans to outfit 650 patrol officers with body cameras. TPD Chief Dugan said they activate when a gun or taser is pulled, though they’re working to make them activate when the lights on a police car are turned on.

St. Petersburg police are in a trial phase of body-worn cameras, with four officers and the chief wearing and testing them.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office said it’s used body cameras since 2015.

Clearwater police do not have body cameras but that council has asked them to take a look at them.

Clearwater's police chief said they initially looked at cameras five years ago but felt legislative issues needed to catch up and had concerts about the cost-benefit ratio. He explained his views have changed over time.

“Originally the rub I always had with body cameras is there’s kind of a salacious desire of people to kind of have this window into everybody else’s life and dealing with people who are suffering, whether it’s homelessness or drug addiction or have family issues or mental health issues, and just kind for recording footage other people are going to use for their own salacious needs has never sat really well with me,” said Clearwater police chief Daniel Slaughter, “But in today's day and age, I’m not really sure if they necessarily build trust but I think they would make our community feel more comfortable.”

Chief Slaughter said they planned to have discussions next month.

“I do think they would be useful for us to have those discussions with those that don’t trust us and kind of talk about that. Let them understand what the officers are doing and at the same time they’ll give me I think the ability to improve our police product,” he said.

A spokesperson for Temple Terrace said police there are working on securing funding to purchase new body cameras, noting 38 of the 42 patrol cars have in-car cameras.

“The Temple Terrace Police Dept. does not use body-worn cameras at this time, although years ago we were one of the first agencies in the area to have them. Issues with the cameras themselves (which were first-generation) and storage of data led to discontinuation of their use,” a spokesperson stated.

Right now, the sheriff’s offices in Hernando, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties do not have them.

Sarasota and Pinellas Park police do not have them as well.

"Body cameras and anything else are not the end all, be all. The silver lining the thing that’s gonna prevent. You can have body cameras, you can have citizens review board, you can have all these policy, procedures, you can have all these things. Unless you have the right culture, then it’s all for not," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri earlier in June at a news conference.

Gualtieri said there are dashboard cameras in each cruiser and every deputy wears a mic pack.

"You have to weigh the return on the investment and my position is the same as it has been, I have no problems with agencies that want to use it. I’m not inclined to use it and I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem that people are looking for it to solve and, in some cases, some situations it could make it worse," said Gualtieri at that news conference.

The Citrus County Sheriff’s Office said it does not have cameras.

“At this time, we do not have plans to add them as the cost for video storage for records retention is something not attainable with our current budget," a spokesperson said.