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Florida Incident Raises Questions About Police Body Cameras

A viral cellphone video of a use-of-force incident involving Lakeland Police and the public outcry that followed raise questions about transparency and the need for the technology.

by Gary White, The Ledger / April 23, 2018

(TNS) — LAKELAND, Fla. — When two Lakeland Police officers violently engaged a suspect under a bridge last week, passersby happened to capture video of the encounter on their phones.

The two video segments, totaling 41 seconds, were soon posted to the internet and widely viewed. The resulting controversy brought some harsh criticism for the Lakeland Police Department.

In response, LPD officials said it was unfair to judge the officers' behavior on the basis of such short video segments, which didn't capture the interactions that led to the rough arrest of Justin Abbott on April 10.

That explanation prompts a question: Would the public reaction have been different if the two officers had been wearing body cameras and the entire episode had been recorded?

Many law enforcement agencies across the country in recent years have faced the question of whether to adopt recording technology in the interests of transparency. The prevalence of phones with video capabilities has yielded footage of contentious and sometimes deadly encounters between police and citizens, and some agencies have chosen to install cameras in vehicles or employ small cameras worn on officers' bodies.

"Digital technology is changing public expectations of law enforcement, both in terms of how they behave and what evidence they preserve during their interactions with the public, and nowhere is that more evident than in use-of-force cases," said Norm Pattis, a Connecticut lawyer who advised the New Haven Police Department before it introduced body cameras last year.

Pattis said he thinks other departments should follow New Haven's lead.

"Police officers have a monopoly on the use of deadly force and are trained to use pain compliance techniques as a way to ensure compliance with their orders," Pattis said. "They routinely in years past would justify any application of force by saying it was necessary. These videos let the public make their own evaluation."

A study of body-worn cameras conducted by the police department of Rialto, California, found that use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints against officers declined by 50 and 90 percent, respectively. The Journal of Quantitative Criminology published a summary of the study in 2015.

The Lakeland Police Department employs dash cameras in its vehicles, but neither LPD nor any other law enforcement agencies in Polk County use body cameras. That doesn't seem likely to change in the aftermath of last week's incident, which gained national attention and prompted criticism of LPD on social media.

Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado said he hadn't heard directly from any citizens suggesting that LPD outfit its officers with body cameras in response to the episode. But he said that's a request the city sometimes fields.

"This issue comes up on a regular basis," Delgado said. "I think there's always some faction or organization or community group that asks about it, so it comes up from time to time. We continue to evaluate it, but there are definitely some aspects of it that we have to take into consideration, such as the costs associated with it."

In an interview Tuesday, LPD Chief Larry Giddens expressed little enthusiasm for using body cameras. He pointed to the cost and the challenge of managing video records as negative factors.

"I think that we're very transparent and I think we have policies and procedures in place to make sure our officers conduct themselves in a professional manner, which they do on a daily basis," Giddens said.

LPD investigated the April 10 incident and ruled that the officers' use of force was justified under the circumstances.

Escalating encounter

As in other incidents that have fueled controversies in recent years, the encounter began with a minor crime. The two officers, J.R. West and De'Angelo Anthony, approached Abbott when they noticed him sleeping under an overpass at the intersection of Interstate 4 and U.S. 98 N.

Abbott's presence constituted trespassing on Florida Department of Transportation property and the officers ordered him to depart. Giddens said the officers spent several minutes talking to Abbott, repeating their order and giving him a chance to leave.

Abbott refused the officers' commands, asserting that he had a right to be there, and backed up against the wall of the underpass. When the officers tried to force Abbott from the scene, he began "actively resisting" them, Giddens said.

The officers went through the proper protocol in attempting to subdue Abbott, according to Giddens. One fired a Taser at Abbott, but the electroshock weapon had little effect.

Eventually, the officers moved to put handcuffs on Abbott. The suspect dropped to the ground and held his arms clenched under his body, Giddens said, forcing the officers to use aggressive tactics in forcing his hands free.

Giddens said the officers hadn't searched Abbott and didn't know whether he had a weapon. At one point, the suspect reached toward a fanny pack he was wearing, LPD reported.

The videos shot by passing drivers captured West and Anthony hitting Abbott and kicking him as he was prone. Giddens said officers are trained to use body blows, delivered by hand or foot, when necessary to subdue and handcuff a suspect.

Abbott was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest with violence.

When the two videos went viral, Giddens and other LPD officials urged citizens not to draw conclusions based on 41 seconds of a much longer encounter. Some advocates for body cameras say police departments should welcome having an entire arrest recorded to provide greater context for brief scenes of violence.

Giddens, though, said body cameras wouldn't necessarily yield definitive footage.

"I think that we would have a lot of the same questions because it would depend on when the device was turned on," Giddens said. "What happens if it gets knocked loose? Are people going to say we intentionally did that?"

LPD does have dashboard cameras in its 165 marked cars, spokesman Gary Gross said. The department installed dash cameras in its DUI units in 2001 and has added them to other vehicles since then.

About 25 vehicles still have the original systems, and the remainder have been upgraded with more advanced cameras, Gross said. The cameras automatically turn on when the vehicle's emergency lights are turned on or when the siren is on and the speed reaches 75 mph.

The camera can also be manually activated, and a sensor turns it on when the vehicle is in a collision. The new systems automatically download video when the vehicle reaches the station.

The encounter at the overpass wasn't recorded on a vehicle camera. Giddens said it wasn't possible for West and Anthony to park at an angle to face Abbott, and they also didn't expect the call to turn violent.

Prosecutors cool to idea

Jerry Hill, the retired State Attorney for the 10th Judicial Circuit, addressed the issue of cameras in 2015. Hill sent a letter to local law enforcement agencies urging them to proceed cautiously.

The letter emerged from a national discussion of policing sparked by several deadly encounters, including the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In response to that incident, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $263 million to cover the cost of clip-on cameras for 50,000 officers.

In his letter, Hill cited privacy rights and the burden of maintaining and processing video records.

Brian Haas, who succeeded Hill as State Attorney, seems no more enthusiastic about body cameras than his mentor. If local agencies were to adopt such cameras, he said, his office would incur the cost of handling the new volume of public records.

"Those issues (Hill mentioned) still exist today, issues with funding, and it would cause issues for funding here at the State Attorney's Office," Haas said. "We would have to add employees, most likely, to manage those additional recordings and maintain them for many years to come."

Haas said he places more value on the testimony of a law enforcement officer than images from a "pinhole-sized" camera. He said his agency holds officers to high standards and is willing to disqualify testimony from any officer shown to be untruthful.

"I don't need a camera to tell me we have a problem with an officer," he said.

The Polk County Sheriff's Office, the county's largest law enforcement agency with more than 680 sworn officers, does not use vehicle cameras or body cameras. Sheriff Grady Judd makes it clear he has philosophical objections to the devices.

"My first reason is that I am a big privacy wonk, and I don't believe the government has a right to enter your private space and make and keep a recording," Judd said.

He gave the example of an investigation of a home burglary. In processing the crime scene, several deputies might walk through the home. If all wore cameras that were turned on, the recordings could capture images of valuable items that could entice future burglars to the property, he said.

Pattis, who has appeared on "60 Minutes" and Fox News, said he understands that concern but doesn't consider it an insurmountable problem. He said police departments can claim investigative privilege during court cases and argue against public disclosure of video records.

Laws passed in Florida since 2015 have set limits on public disclosure of law enforcement videos.

Judd also said body cameras would strain his department's budget.

"I run a (fiscally) conservative shop here, and that would be a reoccurring burden on the taxpayers into the millions of dollars," Judd said. "It's not one-time. It's a reoccurring multi-millions of dollars."

The Winter Haven Police Department added dash cameras to vehicles at least eight years ago, Chief Charlie Bird said, but maintaining and replacing equipment and storing video proved too expensive. He said he has no plans to return to using vehicle cameras.

The agency has never used body cameras.

"We continue to evaluate the issue yearly and monitor technology updates as well as case law regarding privacy issues," Bird said by email. "However, I will say that our members operate as if they are being recorded at all times."

The Florida Police Chiefs Association opposes any mandatory requirement to use body cameras, executive director Amy Mercer said. The FPCA says each agency should make its own decision on the use of cameras.

"Body cameras can be a useful investigative tool to help police departments and the communities they serve," Mercer said by email. "However, they can also be a large financial burden, especially to smaller police departments. The cost of storage, responding to and redacting public records requests can be beyond many communities' financial resources."

Different approaches

The police departments in Central Florida's two largest cities have added body cameras in recent years.

The Tampa Police Department began researching the issue in 2014 and bought 60 Axon Flex cameras for officers the following year. The initial cost was $83,000, which included a video storage system, spokeswoman Janelle McGregor said.

The cameras can be mounted on an officer's hat, collar, glasses or epaulet. The devices were distributed throughout the force, with six supplied to officers on bicycles, McGregor said.

The Orlando Police Department has acquired 430 body cameras, enough for more than half of its roughly 800 sworn officers, spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Bernal said.

The department started with first responders and patrol officers and has since added cameras for other officers. All new officers are issued body cameras when they begin work, Bernal said, and OPD plans eventually to have cameras for every officer.

The agency's leaders opted for body cameras over devices for all vehicles, Bernal said, though OPD does have cameras in 22 vehicles, including all its DUI patrol cars.

Bernal said OPD officers have become comfortable wearing the cameras. He said one officer in the initial test group had to go without a camera for about three weeks when the agency changed to Motorola models, and he reported feeling "naked" without a camera.

"I can tell you from experience and from talking to people, we love them," Bernal said. "I know there is some skepticism with them and there is a learning curve like in any other profession, but it's a fantastic tool for us."

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office does not employ body cameras and has dash cameras only in its DUI vehicles, a spokesman said.

The Osceola County Sheriff's Office doesn't currently use body cameras but plans to adopt them in the near future.

"We're in the process of creating a policy and looking for the best possible body cameras we can have for our agency," spokesman Major Jacob Ruiz said. "It's an issue of budgeting with the county. We'd like to do it sooner rather than later. We're projecting about a year out or so."

Pattis, the lawyer, acknowledges that body cameras have limitations and don't necessarily produce conclusive visual evidence. Still, he said, it seems inevitable that all larger law enforcement agencies will eventually adopt the use of cameras.

Pattis said recordings often help to show that a use of force is justified, even if officers make some errors of judgment in handling a suspect.

"In an area where police misconduct is assumed to be the case and where there's public suspicion of their motives, I'd want a body camera to protect myself, but there again, it's not perfect," he said. "There are pros and cons to taping, but I think the best part about taping is it can engage the public in a meaningful discussion about how police officers are trained."

Though he has handled cases of alleged police misconduct, Pattis said he has sympathy for officers and recognized what a difficult job they do. But he said agencies should opt for transparency.

"More information is good, I think," he said, "and police departments that oppose this make me wonder what they're trying to hide."

©2018 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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