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Sarasota Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020 1 week ago

Sarasota Police Department to implement body camera program

The city of Sarasota is investing $3.66 million to outfit the Sarasota Police Department's patrol division with body cameras.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

The Sarasota Police Department is preparing to implement a body camera program for more than 110 officers by July 2021, a topic city officials have been discussing and exploring since summer 2014.

After reaffirming its commitment to body cameras this summer, the City Commission voted unanimously Oct. 5 to approve a program expected to cost $3.66 million over the next five years. That cost includes three new positions associated with the body camera program and an agreement with equipment provider Axon, which will outfit SPD with 122 cameras and 179 electronic stun guns.

SPD Chief Bernadette DiPino endorsed the proposed body camera program, stating it represented a modern asset for law enforcement despite outlining what she saw as some potential shortcomings of the technology. After a series of local protests advocating for police reform this year, both DiPino and city commissioners were optimistic the cameras could produce good outcomes for the entire community.

“It’s an effective tool for public and officer safety,” she said. “It demonstrates a commitment to transparency and building trust. It ensures accountability, and it protects officers from unjust complaints of misconduct.”

During the commission meeting, the board expressed enthusiasm about body cameras, some questions about how the program would function and the proposed timeline for implementation.

Implementation plans

Latressa Preston, recently as chair of the city’s Police Complaint Committee, submitted a comment to the commission stating she was happy about the prospect of a body camera program.

Still, she had some questions about the specifics of the proposed agreement. One of those questions: Why is the department paying more than $2.13 million to Axon over the next five years but not getting enough body cameras to cover the whole police department?

The police department made a choice to equip the 112 officers in its patrol division as part of its proposal. That was in part a product of a cost-benefit analysis. The equipment is expensive, and because the patrol division is the group most likely to interact with the public, SPD leadership believed the cameras would have the most utility for those officers.

But even though DiPino said the plan is to ultimately expand body cameras to the entire force, she also said the department wouldn’t establish a timeline for that expansion until it had an opportunity to evaluate the efficacy of the new equipment.

“We need to get the initial program into place to see if there are any issues … before we even discuss expanding beyond the patrol division,” DiPino said in an interview with the Sarasota Observer.

While presenting herself as an advocate for the implementation of a body camera program, DiPino has also been vocal about what she considers the technology’s limits. She has repeatedly drawn an analogy to the replay system in the National Football League, stating that a number of HD cameras can fail to provide conclusive information.

“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, wow, once we get the cameras, it’ll be able to answer every question about an incident,’ and that’s just not true,” DiPino said at an Oct. 6 news conference. “There are many perspectives, lots of different angles. The cameras may not be able to capture everything.”

At the Oct. 5 commission meeting, Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked why the department had set a July 2021 date for activating the body camera program, expressing a desire to move more quickly if possible. DiPino said its cameras could potentially go live earlier than that, but she said it would take time to procure the equipment, finalize policies and familiarize officers and the public. City Attorney Robert Fournier said the program needed to comply with public records exemptions for recordings taken when individuals had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Program costs

The Sarasota Police Department joins two other law enforcement groups in the region that recently explored an agreement with Axon for body cameras.

In September, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office approved a 10-year, $10.8 million contract with Axon for 555 body cameras and more than 500 electronic stun guns. That same month, the Bradenton Police Department made a presentation to the City Council estimating the cost of a body camera program at $1.2 million over five years. That program would include cameras for 91 officers and two dedicated support staff positions expected to cost about $110,000 annually.

In March 2019, North Port approved a five-year, $1 million contract with Axon to provide cameras and stun guns for 84 officers in the North Port Police Department. North Port Public Information Officer Josh Taylor said the department had two support positions focused on body cameras at a budgeted cost of about $100,000 annually. Officers in North Port began wearing the cameras in May 2019.

At a July 27 budget workshop, Sarasota City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie questioned how three support staff positions at a cost of $254,805 compared to the expenses for North Port’s body camera program. DiPino said she did not have the information immediately available at that meeting, but she said it was difficult to make a one-to-one comparison.

In particular, DiPino said she expected to see more public records requests in Sarasota than in other municipalities.

“North Port is a different entity than the city of Sarasota,” DiPino said at the budget workshop. “We’re much bigger, have more interest in our body cam program, and we anticipate there is going to be a bigger need — especially for the public records — for the redaction.”

Fournier also said the city’s body camera program could possibly receive more scrutiny than other programs, stating he had already heard concerns from ACLU of Florida President Michael Barfield about the maintenance of recordings as public records. Fournier said the police department had expressed a desire to have his office look at all recordings before they are released as public records to make sure there are no legal issues, a process that would represent an additional expense.

“Initially, of course, that’s understandable, but I don’t think long-term that’s a sustainable approach,” Fournier said. “I would hope that, at some point, the agency would be more self-sufficient.”

Fournier said it was difficult to gauge costs, but he estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, the body camera program could add up to $125,000 in expenses for the city attorney’s office in fiscal year 2021. Fournier said he hoped costs would decline as officials and the public familiarized themselves with the program.

Although it could take more than eight months for the body cameras to go live, city officials remained enthusiastic.

“I think this will … give us the tools and recommendations to be able to continue to make our police department the best agency it can be,” Freeland Eddie said.

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