Police body cameras coming, but not without controversy

I-TEAM travels to Miami to see how cams are perceived by officers, residents

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s a time when police interactions are under a microscope. Men and women in uniform often find themselves in tough situations -- which are sometimes life or death.

Police-involved shootings across the United States have been front-page news, and protests and riots have erupted across the country in response. Recently, the shooting deaths of Keith Scott in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa sparked national outrage. Many protesters called for the release of body-worn camera video recorded by the officers involved.

Hundreds of agencies are now turning to body-worn cameras to help alleviate the tension and show transparency, but opponents say the technology is a violation of peoples’ rights and privacy and they don’t give the whole story.

Although controversial, Jacksonville’s Sheriff Mike Williams confirmed in June that he’ll start issuing body cameras to his officers by spring of 2017, through a pilot program. The sheriff says he then expects to have a full program in place within a year.

The decision follows several incidents involving JSO officers and citizens, including the shooting death of Vernell Bing Jr.

In that case, the JSO officer said he felt threatened after Bing rammed a stolen car into his cruiser. But, witnesses claimed Bing was unarmed and running away. A number of activists noted that if body cameras were in use, the truth would be told.

The I-TEAM spent the past few months looking at the potential pros and cons of the new technology, checking with leaders at law enforcement agencies across Florida about their use of body cameras.

Controversial cameras coming to Jacksonville

“If you wear a uniform on the street, you are going to have a camera on it,” Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams said.

The first-year sheriff made the call months ago to outfit JSO officers with the recording technology. By next year, he hopes to have 1,683 officers wearing them. He says at a later date, he'll decide what to do with officers in specialized units, like homicide and sex crimes.

"It's really not a difficult decision to make. Some of the challenges that we had were not about what people will see, it was the privacy issues, it's the cost issue obviously," said Williams. "Those are really the hurdles. The hurdle was never we don't want the public to see this interaction. Just the contrary, we do want the public to see the interaction. They need to see what the officers are dealing with and working with every day. Investigatively, it's going to help us in a lot of different areas."

Body cameras come with a big price tag. To start, it will cost $3 million to $5 million of your tax dollars. After that initial setup, it’ll be about $3 million each year to keep them working.

And, there are still many questions about how the program will work, what challenges police will face and what it all means for people the officers interact with.

Williams says he’s been communicating with Jacksonville’s city council members -- who control JSO’s budget -- about his plans. He says JSO leaders are also applying for federal grants to help fund part of the program’s startup costs.

EXTENDED: Vic Micolucci's interview with Sheriff Williams

Learning from others

JSO is one of the larger law enforcement agencies in Florida, but the largest is the Miami-Dade Police Department. There are more than 2,600 sworn officers in the agency and they have been using body cameras since May.

News4Jax traveled to South Florida and met with department leaders about the program. While it’s still in the early stages, and not all officers there have body cameras yet, police say they’ve gotten a good grip on the technology.

“So far it is going very well, extremely well,” said Captain Gustavo Duarte, who leads Miami-Dade Police’s body-worn camera unit.

Duarte says his agency leaders started researching body cameras back in 2012, before they were widely used. They formed a special body camera unit, with police supervisors and civilian records technicians, and spent years writing a policy about how to use them, when to record and what should be released to the public.

The initial investment was around $5.7 million. Officers say it boiled down to about $62 per camera per month. The director of the Miami-Dade Police Department signed a 5-year deal.

Lt. Luis Almaguer, one of the unit’s supervisors, tells the I-TEAM the technology is simple for officers to use. He says things have actually changed significantly since the cameras were deployed.

“Where do we start?” Almaguer asked.

One example is a June 19 incident where an officer pulled over a woman for speeding. When the officer asked for 26-year-old Maragaret Garcia’s license and registration, video from his body camera shows she pulled out cash.

“What's that right there?” the officer can be heard asking.

The officer says the woman tried to bribe him, asking what she needed to do in order to go home.

“How much (do) I owe you?” she’s heard asking on the body camera recording.

The officer says he found a bag of marijuana in the car and took the woman to jail. When she arrived, she’s heard on video denying she tried to pass a bribe. But the officer says the video doesn't lie.

“I've never been so glad for these cameras in my life,” the officer said.

Street credibility

The I-TEAM wanted to see first-hand how officers and residents are reacting to the use of body cameras, and rode along with Miami-Dade Officer Jorge Martinez.

“I've had a couple situations where I think if I didn't have it, a call would have escalated,” Martinez said. “So I think having the camera helped me out a couple of times.”

The first call we responded to with officers was a domestic dispute between a woman and her mother-in-law. The daughter-in-law told police the elderly woman claimed she would chop her head off with a machete. Martinez and another officer were able to calm both women and didn’t have to press any charges.

The officers’ cameras were rolling the whole time – even inside the apartment the women shared. However, when the I-TEAM obtained the video through a public records request, the interactions inside the private residence were redacted.

WATCH BODY CAM VIDEO: Domestic situation | Car accident

Martinez says even though the cameras were recording, it did not change the way he interacted with the women.

“Never. I still do what I do, I do it the way that I have always done it. It doesn't change a thing,” Marinez said.

While on our ride-along, Martinez also responded to a multi-car crash. The drivers did not appear concerned about the body cameras being used while Martinez investigated.

After the recording

The I-TEAM wanted to know what happens in Miami after the recording is over. At the end of each officer's shift, he or she puts the cameras in a docking station. From there, the video uploads to a server. The Miami-Dade Police Department uses a company called VieVue -- which also sells the cameras -- to store the videos on a cloud.

Upon request, technicians in the body-worn camera unit process the videos. They release the videos to detectives, officers, even prosecutors, who need videos as evidence. These civilian employees, who are supervised by sworn officers, also process public records requests -- which are available for an hourly administrative cost. It was through a public record request that the I-TEAM paid for and obtained the body camera video recorded during our ride-along with Miami-Dade Police.  

Mixed community reaction

During the I-TEAM's ride along, the various officers we spoke to seemed to like having the cameras. They said they do show they’re doing the job right. As for South Florida residents, they have mixed reviews.

“I think that it is a safe alternative to get both sides of the story,” said Miami-Dade resident Erika Moreno.

But resident Omar Barrientos, he's apprehensive.

“Releasing my information to the public, no,” he said. “It is not okay if they release that information.”

Others we spoke with say they aren't  familiar enough with the body-worn camera program to form an opinion.

On the horizon

Whether Jacksonville residents like it or not, police body cameras are coming. And while they won’t solve all problems, the city's top cop is confident they’ll help.

“I think it's going to be a good thing, not just for law-enforcement across the country, but for also us here in Jacksonville,” Sheriff Williams said.

Williams says he’ll start testing out different body camera vendors with select officers starting this spring. After that, he’ll work with city leaders to choose what’s best. 

All patrol officers should have them in about a year, likely by December 2017, according to Williams. He says JSO leaders will have to write a clear policy about how the cameras should be used and what should be released to the public, adding people's privacy is very important to him. 

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