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Police Departments Look to Advance with Cameras

An example of the VIEVU body cameras worn by Ocala police officers. Photo courtesy of VIEVU®.
An example of the VIEVU body cameras worn by Ocala police officers. Photo courtesy of VIEVU®.

Police departments across the nation are making headlines for adding a new piece of equipment to their officers’ uniforms: tiny, wearable video cameras.

Accountability and transparency are common themes in what is now a national discussion, fueled by the grand jury verdicts given in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases in Ferguson and New York.

Some area police departments like the idea of wearable video cameras, but have been limited by funding, storage and privacy concerns.

Ocala Police Department, however, is at the forefront of the initiative.

OPD spokeswoman Sgt. Angy Scroble said specialized units, such as school resource officers, were outfitted with the cameras as early as 2009.

“Body cams were not new to our department,” Scroble said. “There were already at least 20 out there.”

Ocala City Council approved about $130,000 to fund the purchase of 130 body-worn cameras in September. Scroble said the department ended up receiving 135, enough to equip all of its sworn officers.

Each officer is trained on how and when to use to the cameras, which are usually worn in the center of the officer’s uniform. For shorter individuals like Scroble, who is 5 feet 1 inch tall, the camera may not capture the best footage, and that's when the audio prevails.

Programming each camera into the system can be a timely process—so far, out of the 135 cameras bought, 37 units are assigned to OPD officers.

The cost, which can range from $500 to $1,000 a piece, is one factor hindering other local departments from following suit.

Gainesville Police Department has been researching the cameras for a couple of years now, spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said, but the department has 300 sworn officers, almost double that of Ocala.

“Just the initial outlay is going to be very large number,” Tobias said.

A little less than half of GPD’s patrol cars are equipped with “dash cams,” or in-car cameras that are activated when emergency lights go on.

“We are increasing those as much as we can financially,” he said.

OPD has dash cams in their marked patrol cars as well.

Tobias points to storage space as another concern. Video evidence must be digitally stored for a certain amount of time according to state law.

“Nobody has really thought about—for an agency of our size—there’s a huge cost with maintaining this data,” Tobias said. “It has to be stored somewhere.”

Lake City Police Department finds itself in a similar situation, although the agency is much smaller.

The department has adopted in-car cameras and Taser cameras, which are attached to the bottom of a Taser, through grant funding, said department spokesman Officer Craig Strickland.

The car cameras have often been useful when civilians file a complaint against an officer, Strickland said. The police chief then sits down with the civilian and, together, they go over the video recording.

Then there are are gray areas concerning an individual's right to privacy, Strickland said. For example, if the body cameras were to record 24/7, capturing trivial tasks such as coffee runs, the extra footage is not only unnecessary, but may also intrude on law-abiding civilians who come into contact with the officer. He also mentioned certain types of incidents, such as sexual battery, that would have to be dealt with carefully.

OPD’s officers are instructed to turn the cameras on during work-related incidents, Scroble said.

Speculation as to whether the cameras have an effect on officer and civilian interaction led to the first empirical study done in Rialto, California. Half of the officers in Rialto’s police department were randomly assigned cameras each week for a year. Findings showed a significant decline in complaints filed against officers, and a more than 50 percent decline in how often officers used force.

The University of South Florida started another 12-month study in March, involving 100 officers from the Orlando Police Department. Fifty officers are now wearing cameras, while the other 50 are in a control group.

Regardless of the study outcome, funding and data storage are primary concerns for Orlando’s 743-member department, said Master Police Officer Brian Cechowski.

Aside from the current barriers, local departments acknowledge the advantages of using the technology, and will continue researching their options.

“It’s a benefit to the public because if there’s any question about what actually happened, it would show the first-person view,” GPD’s Tobias said.

The move toward video technology is a natural one, OPD’s Scroble said.

“We’re going to do our best to keep up and make sure that if we need to have another mode of accountability, then we’re going to do it.”

Carla is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.