Future is here: Body cameras coming to Pasco

Many law enforcement agencies around the country continue to debate whether they should have patrol officers wear body cameras — but the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office isn’t waiting any longer.

More than 400 deputies and investigators will be equipped with body cameras in February, a movie Sheriff Chris Nocco said would make neighborhoods safer for deputies and the people who live in them.

Pasco County Sheriff’s deputy and field training officer Kristina Perez, right, demonstrates the new body camera that other deputies in Sheriff Chris Nocco’ department will be equipped with beginning in February.  (Michael Hinman/Staff Photo)

Pasco County Sheriff’s deputy and field training officer Kristina Perez, right, demonstrates the new body camera that other deputies in Sheriff Chris Nocco’ department will be equipped with beginning in February. (Michael Hinman/Staff Photo)

“This is not the panacea,” Nocco said during a news conference last week. “This is not going to be the cure-all for all the issues of our world. But it’s a tool, just like any other tool that we use in law enforcement.”

The sheriff’s office is in the process of ordering 415 sets of Taser Axon cameras, which can be mounted on glasses, hats, shirt fronts, collars, lapels and other locations on a deputy. They record up to four hours of video and audio, and have a battery that lasts 12 hours.

Deputies will turn it on whenever they get out of their patrol car to interact with the public or investigate a crime, Nocco said. At the end of each shift, deputies connect their camera to a docking station to upload each video. Once it’s in the system, they cannot be manipulated, and deputies will not be able to edit them.

It’s the kind of system that will not only provide transparency in how deputies interact with people inside Pasco County, but it also could streamline the court system significantly.

“The criminal justice system’s job is to get to the truth,” said Craig Laporte, an attorney with Proly Laporte & Mulligan in Port Richey, who represents one of the deputy unions. “If an individual has, in fact, committed a crime, this provides evidence of that. This could reduce the number of jury trials … because the state attorney will immediately have information they can use.”

Cameras also could significantly reduce the complaints filed against deputies, each one of which must be investigated. By having an unedited video and audio record of the encounter, internal investigations would not have to rely on witness accounts alone, discouraging people from making false claims against the officer.

It also could stop a deputy from crossing any lines, making some of the problems police are experiencing in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, a lot less likely to happen.

While the use of body cameras is something some observers have suggested after the officer-involved deaths in those cities, Nocco said Pasco’s plan has been in motion for quite some time, with field testing beginning last October.

“This started months ago because citizens are constantly pulling their phones out and taping deputies,” Nocco said. Those deputies were “looking on their own to get body cameras, and they were talking about buying them on their own. But I said to wait, because we have to come up with a policy.”

That policy includes when deputies are expected to have the cameras on, and how long videos will be stored before they’re deleted. The policy also makes it clear that the cameras can’t be used as “Big Brother,” Nocco said, referring to the novel “1984,” where supervisors can’t pull up random video just for the sake of disciplining a deputy.

The entire program will cost $400,000 a year — far less than what other neighboring agencies like the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is considering, Nocco said. Initial funds will come from federal forfeiture dollars, but future years will require funding through tax dollars controlled by the Pasco County Commission.

The cameras bring their own controversies to the table, primarily when it comes to privacy rights, Fourth Amendment protections of search and seizure through the U.S. Constitution, and how footage is used, and what is made available to the public. Nocco says he hopes lawmakers in Tallahassee will address body cameras this coming year, but in the meantime, he’s moving forward.

So far for the upcoming legislative session, only one bill has been filed in Tallahassee regarding body cameras. State Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, filed H.B. 57 on Dec. 4 that, if passed, would require every uniformed law enforcement officer primarily assigned to patrol duties to be equipped with a body camera by Jan. 1, 2016.

“We’re not fearful of being a leader out there,” Nocco said. “There’s always going to be bumps in the road, and there is always going to be tweaks.”

Cameras like this already are in use in different parts of the United Kingdom, and those police departments provided a significant amount of data on how the cameras were used. For example, one town in Scotland found that 70 percent of cases that involved body cameras were less likely to go to trial. Closer to home in Rialto, California, complaints against law enforcement officers dropped from 24 to just three.

Published December 17, 2014

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