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Fort Lauderdale PD Begins Body Camera Program After Years of Talks

Debate about cost and public privacy delayed the launch of police-worn cameras, but calls for transparency from residents and the Florida city commission turned the tide after a year of device testing.

(TNS) — After a little more than a year of testing body cameras with 35 officers, Fort Lauderdale police began their camera program Wednesday with training for officers who work SWAT, school resource assignments, motorcycles and patrol.

It’s a big change from 2016, when elected officials cited privacy concerns and costs for not having officers wearing cameras.

But it’s a new day for the department.

“We have overwhelming support from the city commission and obviously the public, who were deeply involved in the creation of the department’s policy,” Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Rick Maglione said.

South Florida police officers have worn cameras for different departments since at least 2015. Some agencies are resisting the move because of costs and technology upgrades while other departments have embraced their use.

The move to using the recording devices is supported by the Broward Public Defender’s Office. Even though video from police body cameras has at times worked against the agency’s clients, “the community is still supportive of them,” Broward Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes said.

He said if the cameras are documenting all encounters, they will be objective devices for transparency. “With allegations of excessive use of force, the camera should be able to support the officer’s position or that of the person subjected to heavy-handedness,” Weekes said.

Fort Lauderdale’s officers who wear cameras will record interactions with the public, during traffic stops and when someone is in their care or custody. Officers may use their discretion about turning off the cameras if crime victims or witnesses ask to not be recorded. State statute allows some footage to be withheld from public records requests, say when recordings are made in a hospital or during an interview with a sex crime victim, Maglione said.

The devices will be worn by captains down through the lower ranks, and are required even while officers work off-duty details at a private business or property.

That decision to require officers to wear the cameras while they are moonlighting wasn’t a result of past issues the department had, when officers worked off-duty details as bodyguards for former lawyer Scott Rothstein, who later was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme, according to Maglione.

“No, not at all,” Maglione said. “And despite what some folks in the public think, I mean obviously when something negative happens and it is captured by a body camera, it’s national news. But there is really only a handful of those incidents a year, and that had nothing to do with influencing our decision to move forward with the program.”

A multimillion-dollar effort

Maglione said the city can afford the program that will cost it a total of about $4 million over the next five years: For 1,000 cameras (2 for each officer) and docking stations, the city spent $600,000 that was matched by a U.S. Dept. of Justice grant.

Additionally, camera maker Axon will provide unlimited storage of video evidence in its cloud server and replacement of broken devices for the next five years, at a total cost of $3.4 million. From year six on, Maglione expects the annual expense to be $700,000.

“The pilot program cost nothing,” Maglione said.

The department has to hire a program manager and several clerks to process requests for records, he said.

Like a lot of police leaders, Maglione said the cameras will hopefully defuse complaints between officers and citizens. But he doesn’t think the number of use-of-force complaints will go down as the cameras are used over time.

“Do I anticipate those numbers will fall? I don’t, because I fully believe that force is used only when necessary,” Maglione said. “Any time it’s alleged that force was used, whether in excess of what’s necessary or if it was completely unnecessary, we investigate those cases and come to the findings. And those are very rare.

“But I do think [the camera is] a very valuable tool, for example, if an officer is accused of using profane language or mistreating someone,” Maglione said. “I think when we play the video of it and we can hear if that did or did not occur, we can definitely bring those complaints to a conclusion much quicker. The cameras are definitely an objective and impartial witness.”

He said the cameras will support officers who face accusations as well as aggrieved citizens.

“We’re not doing the officer any justice when we can’t come to a conclusion because it is a ‘he said, she said,’” Maglione said. “And we fail our neighbor who makes a complaint when we can’t prove their allegations are true, if in fact they are.”

Ultimately, people who think Fort Lauderdale cops will be caught in bad acts by the cameras will be disappointed, Maglione said.

“We are a professional organization,” he said.

Most departments’ upper-command staffs do not wear the cameras, nor do detectives.

No bodycams in some cities

Some South Florida police departments, like Miramar, are not using cameras. ”The city has already looked into this and at present time, we are not considering them,” police spokeswoman Tania Rues said.

Neither is the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, though Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said his reasons for not getting the new technology are varied, and that money tops them all.

“The big issue is the expense of the thing,” Bradshaw said. Expenses wouldn’t just be for cameras and docking stations, but also the costs of upgrading computer servers he called “over capacity and outdated. For me to go to body cameras, I have to get all new servers. … the cameras themselves and a staff to handle public records requests and data management.”

He estimated that could cost about $11.5 million, on top of his current $690 million budget.

“I need deputies before I need everything else,” Bradshaw said. “I’m about 100 deputies short. The issue of the body cameras right now is not at the top of the list. But do I want ‘em? I’ll take all the technology I can get.”

Sunrise Police doesn’t have cameras yet, but hopes to outfit 180 officers with them in the first quarter of 2019, barring any delays, Officer Justin Yarborough said.

Davie Police don’t have a body-camera program, either, but the department also plans to have one eventually. All of its sworn officers have cameras on their Tasers; two patrol cars have dash cameras as a pilot program that will be expanded to more of its cars.

Using the technology

Hallandale Beach police began using cameras in December, 2015. Three months later, the Broward Sheriff’s Office started its program.

At that time, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel called the devices “the right thing to do” and said, "We are a transparent agency. We are not afraid of what goes on out in the street."

Pembroke Pines rolled out its program in November 2017 and currently has 85 police officers wearing cameras.

“We will be adding 62 users in the spring of 2019, and an additional 62 in the spring of 2020,” police spokeswoman Amanda Conwell said.

In Boynton Beach, 100 percent of its road patrol, or 78 officers, are equipped with body cameras.

Delray Beach police officers have worn cameras since July, 2016. There are 160 cameras that have been or will be assigned to officers, including to nine community service officers who will get theirs in 2019.

“It’s going very well, officers are using them without many complaints,” said police spokeswoman Dani Moschella. “The cameras themselves have very few issues. The video quality is great.”

A recent notable bodycam encounter

Sometimes cameras may record encounters that become important later on.

Seven weeks before Democratic leaders across the country started to receive pipe bombs in October, the man accused of sending them was recorded by Boca Raton police officers’ body cameras. The officers were doing a wellness check on Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr. after receiving a call about a man sleeping in a van outside a gym. Sayoc lived in his van and may have made his threatening packages inside it, federal investigators have said. The video showed two officers talking with Sayoc while he sat in the van. They would have needed Sayoc’s consent or other reasons to check inside it, the agency said then.

Sayoc was arrested Oct. 26 in Plantation and is being held in jail while awaiting trial.

Boca Raton’s pilot program began in 2015 and currently all patrol officers have body cameras, the agency said.

©2018 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.