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House members back policies for using body cameras

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Amid a national focus on shootings by police officers, a House panel Wednesday unanimously approved a bill that could lead to law-enforcement agencies setting policies for the use of body cameras.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved the measure (HB 93), filed by Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, and Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee. A Senate version (SB 418) is sponsored by Sen. Chris Smith, D-Ft. Lauderdale.

The proposal would only apply to police agencies that decide to use body cameras. Under it, those agencies would be required to establish policies and procedures addressing the proper use, maintenance and storage of body cameras and recorded data. State law currently doesn't require such policies.

"There is a lot of pointing fingers that is taking place, whether it's from the citizen's standpoint or from the police aspect," Jones said. "What this (bill) does is bring it into perspective, knowing who is to blame, who do we hold accountable?"

Much of the finger-pointing extends back to August 2014, when Michael Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson, touching off riots. That has been followed by a series of other highly publicized deaths nationwide involving black men in police custody.

In Florida, a controversy erupted last month about the death of Corey Jones, a Boynton Beach man who was fatally shot by a Palm Beach Gardens police officer. Jones was a musician whose car broke down on his way home from a gig late at night. The plainclothes officer who approached him wasn't wearing a body camera.

The death prompted members of Florida's legislative black caucus to call for an independent review, along with legislation that would include body cameras for law-enforcement officers, dashboard cameras for police vehicles and automatic reviews of all police-related shootings.

The measure that passed Wednesday will be considered during the 2016 legislative session, which starts in January. A version of the bill was unanimously approved by the House during the 2015 session, but it died without Senate passage at the abrupt end of the session.

HB 93 is supported by the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Police Benevolent Association, along with a number of individual agencies.

"When this bill was first introduced, many people were against it, the law enforcement association and many other entities," Rep. Clovis Watson, D-Alachua, said. "And they worked together."

One major issue with the use of body cameras has been privacy. For instance, police recordings often occur in private homes or mental-health facilities. Concerns about that issue were eased during the 2015 session with the passage of a bill that makes certain recordings by police body cameras confidential.

"Our Constitution provides us that right to personal privacy," Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said Wednesday. "This (HB 93) is a very good bill that allows for that, but also for the appropriate use of body cams, which I think are a good law enforcement tool."

About one-third of law enforcement agencies currently use body cameras, both nationally and statewide.

"Body cameras are not just for the citizens, but also for the police," Jones said. "If you look at a lot of the sheriffs, they are in favor of it because it'll help them come down with citizen complaints, and it'll help the citizens hold everyone accountable."

A University of South Florida study released last month found that fewer violent incidents and fewer complaints occur when police wear the cameras. According to the study, roughly one in four officers said wearing a camera affected his or her behavior in the field. More than one-third said wearing cameras had deescalated confrontations with citizens.

"Two out of every three officers who wore a BWC (body-worn camera) reported that they would want to continue wearing one upon study completion," the study noted.