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Lakeland, Fla., Police Get Body Cams After Commission Vote

The topic has divided city leaders for years, with opponents concerned about the cost and necessity of the tech. But residents who came out in droves to support the cameras left the meeting satisfied following the vote.

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(TNS) — The Lakeland City Commission gave initial approval Thursday to a budget that, for the first time, includes body cameras for its police department.

The topic has divided city leaders for years, with opponents concerned about the cost of the technology and whether it’s needed. But residents who came out in droves to support the cameras Thursday night — and who have been calling for them loudly since the murder of George Floyd in March 2020 by a Minneapolis police officer — left the meeting satisfied following the 5-2 vote.

“The big issue here is public trust and transparency,” said Terry Coney, who leads the local chapter of the NAACP and was joined by many Black residents in attendance.

Resident Phyllis West told the commission of a time when she was sweeping her front porch, minding her own business, when two Lakeland police officers pulled a gun on her and asked who else was in the house.

Eventually, she said, another officer arrived and informed the officers they had the wrong house. If something would have happened that day, there would have been no body cameras to corroborate her story, she told the commission in a heartfelt speech.

“I understand all this about budget and money,” West said. “We are talking about lives here.”

Mayor Bill Mutz joined Commissioners Stephanie Madden, Sara Roberts McCarley, Chad McLeod and Phillip Walker in a vote for the tentative budget, with body cameras.

But the two commissioners who voted against it, Mike Musick and Bill Read, had reservations about the cost and whether the city should take this on during a pandemic.

The cameras would cost an estimated $1.1 million in the first year, but that could increase over the 10-year lifespan of a contract.

There was also debate about need.

While Police Chief Ruben Garcia touched on the benefits of body cameras — saying “it’s another dimension that will help us determine what has occurred on the street” — he said no when asked if they were needed today.

“Our data does not say we need them,” he added, noting that the city gets about 15 complaints a year that go into an internal affairs investigation.

Musick said, “This gives me pause from a fiscally responsible position. This will put the cost burden on citizens long after we are here. We are voting for something that our own police chief said we don’t need.”

But the majority of commissioners said body cameras should be in place before something happens that causes unrest in the community, not after.

“No one wakes up saying this is the day we are going to have a shooting or a riot,” Madden said. “I feel like this is the way the world is going with technology, and I see all of the folks out here tonight who are representing a community.”

She said she’s focused less on money; more on what the residents want.

“This is what we are supposed to do as a city,” she said. “I hope we don’t have any reason to need them ...but I feel like after listening to everyone, this is our moment to do this. Let’s do it ahead of the necessity.”

Mutz agreed, saying body cameras are the top request he hears from constituents. He encouraged his peers to approve the cameras.

“This is a way to sharpen our swords,” he said.

© 2021 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.