The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office rolled out the use of body cameras as standard equipment for its deputies beginning in February.
The Tampa Police Department has adopted a pilot program, using 80 cameras in three police districts.
The leaders of both police agencies spoke about the use of body cameras at the debut of the Criminal Justice Speaker Showcase on April 16 at Saint Leo University.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco and Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor addressed roughly two dozen faculty, students and media about the expanding use of body cameras.
Pasco’s deputies and investigators put on a body camera at the beginning of each shift.
Nocco made the decision to use the cameras after seeking opinions from other law enforcement agencies that were using the technology even before the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri.
“One thing that was consistent when they were asked the question ‘Would you ever go back?’ They all said no,” Nocco said.
The Ferguson, Missouri incident involved a white police officer who shot and killed a 17-year-old black teenager.
The incident sparked riots in Ferguson and a national protest regarding charges of excessive police force and racism.
An investigation cleared the officer in Ferguson of any wrongdoing.
The use of body cameras will have a significant impact on policing, Nocco said.
“It’s going to change the way we do law enforcement,” Nocco said. “It’s an evidence-based business model.”
Police departments already using the cameras have reported fewer confrontations and reduced complaints from residents.
Nocco also said he expects the court system will benefit, because more suspects will plead out cases rather than go to trial.
“If we can reduce the backlog because of the evidence, think how much more efficient courts will be,” he said.
Videos taken by bystanders on camera cellphones have brought mixed results.
A grand jury declined to indict officers caught on tape using a banned chokehold while arresting Eric Garner on Staten Island for selling single cigarettes. Garner died at the scene.
But another bystander in North Charleston, South Carolina taped a police officer shooting Walter Scott in the back as he fled after a routine traffic stop for a broken tail light. The officer has been charged with murder.
Still, the objectivity of a video is what many hope will resolve disputes of fact and create more transparency when confrontations happen.
“Once it is ironed out, it will be a regular thing” said Jennifer Booker, a staff member at Saint Leo University. “I think it will become a piece of evidence like DNA was in the 80s. They shoot exactly what happens from beginning to start.”
Rickado St. Fleur, a criminal justice major, hopes to some day work for the federal Homeland Security agency. “It’s definitely going to take some time to get used to them,” he said. “But it definitely helps. It will help society regain the bond with law enforcement.”
The Pasco sheriff’s department issued more than 400 sets of Taser Axon cameras that are mounted usually onto glasses, hats, on shirt fronts or collars of deputies or investigators. Cameras are turned on to record interactions with the public. At the end of a shift, video is uploaded to a docking station.
Castor opted for a pilot program with 80 body cameras deployed to 18 officers in each of three districts, and six to officers on bicycle patrols.
“We need to have our side seen,” she said.
It’s a learning curve for everyone.
“It’s going to be an ongoing process to see how the public reacts, and the officers,” Castor said. So far, acceptance has been high, she said.
The cameras raise questions about privacy, search and seizure protections, and about how the video can be used. Currently public record requests for footage are reviewed in-house. Software can blur out certain information such as license tags or identities of minors.
Lawmakers are weighing in during the current legislative session. One bill would require agencies that use body cameras to set policies on their use and training requirements. A second bill would set exemptions to the state’s public records law that supporters say would protect the general public’s privacy. Critics say that could lead to less transparency and allow law enforcement to conceal misdeeds.
Castor said there should be some limitations. She noted that Tampa successfully barred the release of video showing the deaths of two Tampa police officers killed during a routine traffic stop.
“I don’t think that we’ll see the end of legislation for several years,” Nocco said.
But Nocco believes that body cameras are here to stay.
“As we move forward, it’s going to be constantly evolving, constantly changing,” Nocco said. “We’ll be much better off for it.”
Published April 22, 2015