Orlando SWAT to Wear Body Cameras in Policy Reversal

The city’s special weapons and tactics team will be required to follow the same guidelines that govern patrol officers’ use of body cameras, which require the cameras to be activated for most interactions with civilians.

by Tess Sheets, Orlando Sentinel / June 13, 2019
Orlando PD Headquarters Courtesy City of Orlando

(TNS) — Members of Orlando Police Department’s SWAT team are now required to wear body cameras, in a reversal for the agency that had earlier argued recording the specialized group would risk exposing its tactics.

OPD’s SWAT team Commander Chad Ochiuzzo revealed the change to its members in an April email, which the Orlando Sentinel obtained after weeks of public record requests. In it, Ochiuzzo wrote that cameras “need to start being utilized on all SWAT operations” by May 1.

The Police Department has lauded the devices as a valuable asset, saying they help to boost public trust and reduce citizen complaints. But its decision to require SWAT members to use them went unannounced. When the Sentinel asked about the policy, the agency initially denied that a change had been made.

In a May 3 email to the Sentinel, spokesman Sgt. David Baker denied that members were using the devices, saying “our SWAT Team is not equipped with or using body worn cameras.”

Sgt. Eduardo Bernal said in an email Tuesday that Baker’s earlier statement was accurate because deployment of the cameras for all SWAT members had been delayed until the end of May.

“As of May 3, the date of your inquiry, the deployment of BWCs [body worn cameras] on the SWAT Team had not been completed and thus, were not in use on the team,” Bernal said. “Some officers on the SWAT Team may have received BWCs as part of their regular duties like patrol and that is not the same as using it for the purpose of a SWAT operation.”

The change came several months after the Sentinel reported that SWAT members at OPD and other major local agencies were not equipped with cameras. Short for “special weapons and tactics," SWAT teams use military-style tactics and equipment, handling some of the most fraught situations for police, suspects and bystanders alike, such as drug raids and standoffs.

Going forward, Bernal said the OPD SWAT team will be required to follow the same guidelines that govern patrol officers’ use of body cameras, which require the cameras to be activated at the start of most interactions with civilians.

"[T]he intent is to use them for all SWAT operations in the future,” Bernal said in the email.

The officers will have the option to mount the cameras where they want and “their use of BWCs will be monitored and evaluated as time passes,” Bernal said.

OPD began rolling out its body camera program in 2014. By 2017, the agency said it had equipped all of its 435 patrol officers with the cameras.

Until now, the agency had stopped short of requiring SWAT members to use them, saying the footage captured would reveal tactics that “need to be protected" for the safety of its members, an agency spokeswoman said in October.

“[I]t’s crucial for their safety that it’s not known how they move behind cover, how they approach buildings or suspects, or where, for example, snipers may be positioned,” then-OPD spokeswoman Michelle Guido said. The agency has since undergone a leadership change, with John Mina departing as chief to become Orange County sheriff. His replacement, Orlando Rolón, became chief late last year.

In an email, Bernal said the agency decided to equip SWAT with the cameras because “[w]e are a progressive agency and are always looking for ways to leverage available technology to assist our operations.”

Other major agencies around Central Florida still do not require their SWAT teams to use body cameras, citing issues with mounting the devices, battery life and disclosure of tactics.

Those agencies include the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and the Kissimmee Police Department. The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office did not respond Tuesday to a request for information about their body camera policy and has been unresponsive to questions on the topic in the past.

Advocates of body worn cameras and some law enforcement experts have argued SWAT tactics are not so sensitive that recording them would be dangerous for members.

In Volusia County, SWAT members for the Sheriff’s Office and Daytona Beach Police Department mount the cameras to their helmets to be sure their military-style gear doesn’t obstruct the devices.

Though no policy specifically prohibited SWAT members at OPD from wearing the cameras, their gear wasn’t equipped with them.

The agency’s rollout of body worn cameras has been rocky. Months after the agency announced that all patrol officers had been equipped with the devices, OPD was forced to replace them with new models because of a battery issue. Several shootings have gone unrecorded by OPD officers who either hadn’t been assigned cameras, had ones that weren’t working or failed to turn them on.

When a SWAT member and two other OPD officers shot and killed 33-year-old Brian Baker at Orlando Regional Medical Center Oct. 1, none were recording. One officer was a police-dog handler, another group that at the time was not required to wear the devices, while the third had just come off a 12-hour shift and his camera battery was dead, officials have said.

Police said Baker had threatened hospital staff and claimed to have a gun, though they later discovered he was not armed.

Guido said the shooting was recorded by other officers who responded to the hospital. K-9 handlers have since been outfitted with cameras, Bernal said.

©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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