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USF helps bring body cameras to Tampa police

In an effort to improve interactions between citizens and police officers, many police departments across the country have experimented with body cameras in the past couple of years, and an increasing number of Florida police departments are following suit.

At a news conference March 6, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor announced that 60 Tampa patrol officers would begin wearing body cameras while on duty in the city’s three police districts. 

Castor also mentioned in the conference that the Tampa Police Department has agreed to be part of a yearlong study by USF’s criminology department. The study will investigate the effects of cameras on police-civilian relations, and Castor said she expects positive results from the study.

“The studies show, and this is what USF is looking at, that there are less resists and injuries involved with officers wearing cameras, there are less complaints toward officers who are wearing cameras,” Castor said at the conference. “My prediction is it may improve police behavior a little bit, citizen behavior a whole lot … this will give the citizens of Tampa, in essence, the ability to walk in the shoes of a police officer.”

The study began on March 1, and examines the use of police force during suspect confrontations, the behavior of other officer-citizen interactions and the number of external and internal complaints against officers. 

The study will also involve the Pasco County Sherriff’s Office as a control group, as all 415 officers in Pasco County are equipped with body cameras.

This follows a similar study involving the Orlando Police Department, which began in March 2014 and concluded on March 15 of this year. The study examined the same outcomes as the Tampa study, and USF researchers are still compiling final data for the study’s last three months.

Wesley Jennings, an associate professor and chair of USF’s criminology department, said Tampa’s willingness to be involved in the study is likely due to recent technological advancements in body cameras, as well as an increasing number of police departments that are purchasing cameras for their officers.

“We reached out to Tampa (Police Department) well over 18 months ago when we first started with the Orlando project,” Jennings said. “The national discourse and the knowledge about body-worn cameras was way in its infancy … but now, obviously with the Ferguson incident and the Eric Garner incident, it’s on the national news.”

Jennings also said there is much more exposure to the idea of body-worn cameras. 

“In our initial meetings, they were very willing and receptive to the idea of letting us do exactly what we’re doing in Orlando,” Jennings said. “They understand the value of the strong research design.”

Like he’s seen in the first six and nine months of the Orlando study, Jennings said he expects to see a lower use of force from Tampa officers equipped with cameras versus those who do not, as well as lower external complaints from citizens and slightly more internal complaints from the police department on officer behavior. 

Jennings said the decline of police force and complaints should accelerate as time goes on in the Tampa study.

“We’re presuming that the results will largely be replicated because the research design is exactly the same, and the sample sizes are comparable … it’s a large metropolitan city and municipal police force similar to Orlando,” Jennings said. “We envision the results should be pretty comparable.”

To further measure the effect that body cameras have on police-community interactions, Jennings stated that criminology department researchers are in the process of creating grants with the Tampa Police Department to add surveys to their study. 

These surveys would receive responses from people who are arrested by officers with body cameras and would concern police and citizen behavior, as well as general community surveys concerning residents’ views on police-worn body cameras.

For the study, 60 officers would be equally split between Tampa’s three police districts and each district would have fair representation of officers who have cameras and those who do not. 

The researchers will also take officers’ shifts into account and ensure that daytime shifts and nighttime shifts also possess equal numbers of officers with and without body cameras.

“We have cameras covering all hours of the day and all days of the week to ensure that all those scenarios, particularly the high crime scenarios which are at risk for any kind of negative police-citizen encounters, are going to be a part of the experiment,” Jennings said.

Supporting police-worn body cameras, Jennings said he does not see many negatives with the technology. Body cameras improve police officer accountability and provide video evidence to challenge external complaints, he said, which allows officers to display their side of an arrest or crime and help lower the frequency of lawsuits against them. Recordings would also encourage transparency in police departments, as videos would be considered public record, he added.

Jennings did say that body cameras have their negatives, primarily their cost in large departments and restrictive recording guidelines.

“Police-body worn cameras that can be mounted on sunglasses, around the collar…or even on the chest are usually $500 to $600 a piece,” he said. “Sometimes it can be $15 a month per officer for (video) storage depending on how much storage capacity the department wants. So those are recurring costs in a sense.”

Restrictive recording policies occur when police departments create a laundry list of situations in which an officer is required to use a body camera and an equal amount of situations in which it is prohibited. 

Jennings said this can be a lot for an officer to remember during his patrol, and he could mistakenly miss important footage or take a prohibited video that could be dismissed in a court case.

“Some agencies stipulate exactly when and where to turn the camera on, so if there are 15 or 18 different scenarios where the camera is on and 18 different scenarios where the camera is off, that’s a lot for an officer to remember,” Jennings said. “You could accidentally miss a good portion of video you might need or vice versa.”

Another popular concern of police-worn body cameras is the issue of privacy. While Jennings said body camera footage can be redacted to protect the privacy of private citizens and minors, some political and civil liberties groups are still concerned over what will and will not be available to the public.

Thomas Rayder, president of the USF College Republicans, said he supports body cameras and thinks that cost is an issue as well, but he said he is also concerned about videos of citizens in private residences being classified as public record.

“It’s expensive to put cameras on every police officer. Generally, I would be in favor of it if there’s a way to pay for it,” Rayder said. “The recorded film of civilians or suspects will be put up for public records, and obviously that could interfere with privacy.”

Katharine Orr, last year’s state chair of the Young Americans for Liberty, said her main problem with police body cameras is ensuring officer accountability. 

While she supports body cameras, Orr said officers have the ability to choose when their cameras are on or off. She would therefore like to see clear regulation addressing officer recording discretion and dealing with potential misconduct.

“Cameras on police officers is something that I think we should try,” Orr said. “My main concern is oversight … officers may have control over what gets submitted and what is seen by the people who review the video. When it comes down to the word of a bystander, more often than not, the police officer’s word will have a higher value.”

At the moment, Jennings said though this study involving Tampa Police is a small-scale pilot test, the department is considering methods to expand their use of body cameras to the rest of their patrol force.

A list of other Florida police departments are also currently using body cameras, including departments in Temple Terrace, Daytona Beach, Fort Myers and Pensacola. 

While it is too early to determine if body cameras will become standard-issue equipment for all patrol officers in Florida, their use is undoubtedly on the rise in the state’s police departments.  

The Tampa Police Department and the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office studies will last until March 2016.