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Florida County Debates the Use of Police Body Cameras

As Congress debates a police reform bill, law enforcement agencies across Polk County, Fla., are mulling the purchase of body cameras for their officers should such a bill include federal grants to pay for them.

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(TNS) — As Congress debates a police reform bill, law enforcement agencies across Polk County, Fla., are mulling the purchase of body cameras for their officers should such a bill include federal grants to pay for them.

"We are supportive of this concept," said Haines City Police Chief Jim Elensky. "I've made it clear that we are in favor of body cams, and it's something, in general, that I had been looking into before now. They provide a level of transparency, and I'm a guy who believes in transparency."

But Elensky, like others, has balked at the cost, which can run into the millions even for a smaller department like Haines City, with 55 sworn officers. And grants, he said, often don't cover the ongoing expenses.

"I'm always a little leery of grants," he said, "because nothing is free, and grants often aren't free for very long."

So far, the federal House and Senate have failed to agree on legislation regarding police use of force, officer immunity and funding for training and equipment, but preliminary proposals from both have included some measure of federal assistance for body cameras. The Senate's initial proposal, which failed to pass, had offered $100 million annually for the next five years. It also included financial penalties for any department that received grant funding but failed to institute policies governing the use of the cameras.

Should Elensky's department adopt the use of body cameras, it would join about 180 police departments statewide that already use either body cameras, dashboard cameras or both, based on a 2019 Florida Department of Law Enforcement report. Only 69 police departments, or about 28 percent of the 248 police departments included in the FDLE report, use neither.

Of those 69 departments, six are in Polk County — Bartow, Winter Haven, Lake Alfred, Haines City, Auburndale and Davenport. Police departments in Lakeland, Lake Wales and Lake Hamilton are alone in using dashboard cameras in Polk County. None of the county's police departments use body cameras.

Likewise, the Polk County Sheriff's Office is among a handful of similar departments statewide that don't use body or dashboard cameras. And with nearly 900 sworn deputies, including some who work in detention, it's the largest department in that group, according to FDLE reports.

Sheriff's offices in Polk County, which is ranked ninth in the state by population, and Sarasota County, ranked 14th, are the only sheriff agencies among the one-third largest counties statewide that don't use police video systems, according to FDLE and state population reports. And of the 13 counties whose sheriff's offices don't use any police video equipment, five total less than 50,000 residents, records show.

Judd: 'This is a social experiment'

Even if federal grant money becomes available, don't expect to see body cameras on deputies in Polk County any time soon.

Sheriff Grady Judd said he's not convinced the benefit to using the cameras outweighs their invasion of personal privacy.

"My concern doesn't start with cost," he said. "My concern starts with personal privacy. We encounter people at the worst times in their lives. To me, the government has no right to put a camera on a government agent and have them walk into your home when you're the victim of a burglary or to tell you your teenage child has died in a wreck. That is professionally and personally offensive to me."

Judd acknowledged that Florida law exempts the release of video taken inside someone's home, but expressed concern that the Legislature could rescind that law at any time when it comes up for routine review.

He also said anyone with a cellphone has the ability to record events involving deputies as they unfold, and he would encourage the public to do so.

"Why should I, as a taxpayer, pay for body cameras when everybody with a phone has a camera, and that camera is pointing at me, as a deputy?" he asked.

Judd also questioned whether body cameras actually serve to identify misconduct among law enforcement officers.

"This is a social experiment," he said, "and I'm going to watch. I've read the research, and neither the conduct of the police officers nor the people interacting with them changes because of body cameras."

He said agencies with professional accreditation, like his, are mandated to maintain a high ethical standard.

"I'm not saying there is no police misconduct in this world," he said, "but accredited agencies are already investigating every allegation of misconduct that comes in."

Judd said he remains open to the idea of body cameras and will continue to review the research involving agencies that use them.

"I'm taking a wait-and-see approach," he said.

Body cams a success in Pasco

In Pasco County, deputies have been wearing body cameras since 2015, said Lead Public Information Officer Amanda Hunter.

"When a deputy's actions have been called into question," she said, "it helps us tell both sides of the story. Video doesn't lie."

She said the cameras have worked well in Pasco County, where all deputies and supervisors with a road patrol function are equipped with body cameras, including school resource officers and marine units. The department maintains 410 body cameras, she said, with an estimated annual program cost totaling $515,000.

Hunter said public record requests for video footage have been manageable, and she's not aware of extensive problems related to exposure on social media.

"Some do end up on social media," she said, "but we also preemptively release videos on our social media. We recently released a video of a battery on a law enforcement officer to show people what our deputies go through."

Under Florida law, Hunter said, the department doesn't release images captured inside a home or that reveal the identity of victims, and she wasn't aware of instances when those videos have gotten out.

"We retain those, so that hasn't happened," she said.

Aside from his privacy concerns, Judd said the Polk County Sheriff's Office no longer accepts federal funding, and he wouldn't do so to purchase body cameras.

"We quit that about three or four years ago," he said. "The feds attach so many strings to the money, you no longer manage your own organization — they do, and we don't want a bunch of federal bureaucrats pulling us around by the nose."

Judd said many federal grants provide starter money for projects, but local funding eventually is required to maintain those programs.

Adoption in Polk tied to funding

Other agencies across Polk County are amenable to the concept of body cameras, but want to see what funding may become available before proceeding.

"The costs associated with body cameras are a large part of the decision to implement them here in Lakeland," said Lakeland Police Department spokeswoman Robin Tillett, "not only for the primary equipment, but the other needs required to ensure proper implementation and long-term maintenance. This includes additional equipment for retention requirements and personnel to ensure data is maintained, stored and made available for release when requested."

She said Lakeland Police administrators share Judd's concerns about individual privacy, which would factor into any decision regarding body cameras.

Jamie Brown, spokeswoman for Winter Haven Police Department, said that agency has investigated the use of body cameras for its 105 officers, but has found them to be cost prohibitive. The department would, however, consider grant funding if it's included in a federal police reform bill, she said.

"Our agency is constantly reviewing grant opportunities that can better serve both our agency and the citizens we serve," she said. "As in all grant research, we would need to review the parameters of the grant and what was covered along with any requirements or limitations."

Auburndale Police Chief Andy Ray said he's considered the use of body cameras and isn't opposed to the concept for his department's 36 sworn officers, but has concerns about their limitations.

"From the standpoint of being able to see an incident from start to finish, you can see what's in front of an officer," he said. "If the problem is behind that officer initially — if someone comes around a building to the left with a gun — by the time the video is going to get anything, it's already happened."

Problems can arise if an officer, in a high-stress situation, accidentally causes the camera not to function, Ray said.

"All of a sudden, that officer becomes a suspect," he said. "People outside law enforcement have great expectations of what body cams are going to bring, but even the body camera is not perfect. It's another tool and can work in a lot of cases, but it may not always capture what you would want."

Still, he said, his department would consider grants if they're offered.

"If the feds do pass legislation," he said, "we would definitely see what the possibilities are."

©2020 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.