Police bodycams not seen likely here soon

Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar, Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey and 19th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Bruce Colton all say they’re “not opposed” to local law enforcement officers wearing body cameras.
“Any tool that can help us do our jobs is a plus,” Currey said.
In fact, Loar predicted that most law enforcement agencies would be using them “within the next decade.”
By then, perhaps, the county will have grown to a point where there’s more violent crime, more felony arrests and more officer-involved shootings.
Maybe, by then, we’ll need our local police officers and sheriff’s deputies to wear bodycams to shield them from bogus claims of brutality and bad shoots, defend their agencies from frivolous lawsuits and protect the citizenry from cops who are overly aggressive or too quick to pull the trigger.
But we don’t need them now.
Here, now, bodycams would be a luxury – something we might want to have when all of our other policing needs are met and we’ve got some extra cash to spend.
A lot of cash.
Whenever the time comes, equipping local law enforcement agencies with bodycams won’t be cheap. Loar estimates the start-up costs for the Sheriff’s Office would be somewhere between $450,000 and $650,000.
Then there are the recurring expenses, such as licensing for each camera, equipment maintenance and replacement, officer training, video storage and complying with public records requests, which would include redacting some images to protect the privacy of bystanders.
And, of course, people possessing the necessary video and technology skills would need to be hired to handle all this new information.
Remember: These videos can be used in criminal cases and other legal proceedings, including civil lawsuits, and a secure chain of evidence must be established and preserved to protect their integrity.
That’s why Currey is exploring the possibility of leasing the equipment from bodycam companies that would cover maintenance, technology upgrades and video storage.
“We’ve had a couple of demonstrations this year,” Currey said, adding that leasing the equipment – both body cams and dashboard cameras – for 40 officers and their vehicles would cost the city roughly $80,000 per year.
But he said it’s unlikely Vero Beach police officers will be getting body-cams any time soon.
“It comes down to money,” Currey said, “and, right now, it’s not at the top of our list of priorities.”
Nor should it be.
Simply put: We don’t have enough of these police-versus-suspect incidents, particularly those that involve gun play, to justify the expense.
While more than two-thirds of the police departments in America’s major cities are equipped with bodycams, we’re not Chicago, New York or Baltimore. We’re not Miami. We’re not Ferguson, Missouri.
We’re not even Fort Pierce, which began equipping its police department with bodycams in June, nine months after a grand jury recommended them in the wake of an April 2016 traffic stop during which a man was shot by an officer, who was not charged.
The Fort Pierce Police Department is leasing 100 bodycams for five years at an average annual cost of $90,000. The hope there, as it is in other communities with similar equipment, is that transparency will enhance accountability, which will encourage greater civility between the police and the public.
But with all due respect to our neighbors to the south: There’s more crime, more gang violence and more shootings in Fort Pierce than we experience here.
If it weren’t for the protests in Gifford following the fatal shooting of a 21-year-old woman by the sheriff’s SWAT team during a drug raid in March, it is unlikely anybody in this county would be talking about bodycams.
Asked if county residents, other than those attending the protests, have been pushing for bodycams, Loar replied, “Absolutely not.”
And for good reason: They’re not needed.
Only recently has the relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and Gifford showed signs of strain. Previously, Loar’s outreach into the black community spawned unprecedented cooperation between civic leaders and his deputies.
However, Loar launched a crackdown on illegal drugs and guns in the community after an off-duty deputy, Garry Chambliss, was fatally shot standing outside a house in Gifford in February. That crackdown included the March raid in which Alteria Woods was killed at the residence of Andrew Coffee III and Andrew Coffee IV, who Loar said used the woman as a shield “for protection.”
Loar said he’s still attending the monthly meetings with Gifford community leaders and residents, despite the protests sparked by the deadly raid, during which a deputy also was shot and wounded.
“We’re there the third Monday of every month,” the sheriff said. “It’s important to have that face-to-face contact.”
For that reason, Loar prefers to put his money into manpower rather than bodycams, which he said would “not have changed a thing” during the raid on the Coffee house.
“Someday, we’ll probably go that route, but bodycams don’t prevent crimes,” he said. “Deputies in green-and-white cars prevent crimes, and we need more of them.”
Besides, Loar said, as more law enforcement agencies opt for bodycams, more companies compete for customers, and technology improves, the cost should eventually come down.
Colton, too, said he expects to see more law enforcement agencies in his four-county circuit begin equipping officers with bodycams in the coming years. And he welcomes the technology.
But he warns that it’s not a fool-proof system.
“I can see the positives, but I also can see problems,” Colton said, adding that his office investigates all officer-involved shootings in the circuit and presents its finding to a grand jury as a matter of policy. “Sometimes, the videos can be misleading.”
He cited variables that affect what is visible on the videos, such as where on the officer’s body the camera is placed and whether the officer’s head is turned.
“You can get different angles and different views that might not present an accurate depiction of what’s happening,” Colton said, recalling an incident where a bodycam video appeared to show that an officer chased down a suspect and shot him.
“On the dash-cam video, however, you can see the suspect turn and point a gun at the officer,” he continued. “If you relied solely on the bodycam, you’d think the officer shot the guy for no reason.”
While bodycam and dash-cam videos often provide visual evidence that aids or exonerates good police officers or brings bad cops to justice, Colton said cities and counties must weigh the benefits of adding bodycams against the costs.
Indeed, the costs to his office will be significant, too. He said the videos must be stored and preserved for years, long after cases are resolved and sentences are imposed – because they could be needed for appeals and possibly re-trials.
“It’s going to be very expensive to do it and do it right,” Colton said. “We’ve got multiple agencies in the circuit, and if they get different technologies, it makes storage and keeping up with public-record requests even more challenging.”
The Florida Legislature requires law enforcement agencies using bodycams to have policies in place regulating officer training, use of the devices and the footage they capture.
As for public-records requests, Loar said some of the images must be redacted to ensure the privacy rights of bystanders. Also, not all of the videos are public record – at least not until the discovery phase of a trial.
Some videos are not immediately subject to public records requests because they’re considered evidence and part of the police’s investigative file. However, an agency’s refusal to release such a video almost certainly would prompt suspicion, particularly in cases of officer-involved shootings.
A new state law that allows police officers equipped with bodycams to review videos before filing their reports or testifying under oath also has the potential to arouse suspicion.
So does redaction, which some law-enforcement critics will seize upon to argue that the process offers police an opportunity to tamper with the videos before they’re released to the public.
So until our law enforcement agencies have all the manpower and other equipment they need to protect and serve – and unless our communities produce a surplus of tax dollars waiting to be spent – let’s forget about bodycams.
Here, at least, they’d be a waste of money and, possibly, more trouble than they’re worth.

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