Miami-Dade mayor: ‘I want a camera on every police officer’

In the wake of national outrage over alleged police misconduct in Ferguson, Mo., Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Thursday vowed to make “body cameras” mandatory for all county patrol officers.

His proposed budget calls for purchasing 500 of the mini cameras, enough to outfit about half of Miami-Dade’s patrol force. Made by Taser, they’re small enough to snap onto a pair of glasses or a hat in order to record everything an officer sees.

“I want a camera on every police officer,” Gimenez told the audience at a budget town hall meeting in Little Haiti.

Gimenez’s strong words put Miami-Dade, one of the largest local governments in the country, on the forefront of a national debate over police cameras in the wake of the Ferguson shooting of an unarmed teenager by an officer. Days of unrest followed, with protestors alleging homicide and authorities saying they didn’t yet have enough evidence to pass judgement. Civil-liberties activists have raised concerns about a police force essentially filming every civilian they come in contact with.

Referring to Ferguson, Gimenez told an audience of about 50 people that “I think if there had been a camera, a lot of what happened could have been avoided.” Later, he added: “Police officers, everyone once in a while may step out of line. But there also are a lot of frivolous allegations against them.”

Aside from the national discussion, Gimenez’s push for police cameras comes at a delicate time for him on the law-enforcement fund. He’s in the midst of an increasingly bitter fight with the police union, which has slammed his budget for proposing job cuts for law enforcement. In a statement, police union president John Rivera said the union had a “pending” greivance involving the body-camera issue and said, in part “if an officer has to worry about yet another function, that second or two to activate [the camera] might cost them their life.”

Even so, Rivera suggested the union might not protest the cameras, once fully briefed on the technology. “It’s premature to say whether we will object or not,” the statement read. “We need answers…”

Gimenez’s camera statement came as an aside during a budget meeting that covered a number of hot topics tied to the mayor’s proposed $6 billion spending plan, including planned cuts to county-funded charities and whether Miami-Dade should approve a significant increase to the library tax. Asked if he has decided whether to back the higher tax endorsed by county commissioners in July, Gimenez answered: “Not yet.” Despite the coy moment, Gimenez’s proposals for library spending — including returning the largest branches to seven days of service — have signaled his tacit endorsement of the higher tax.

Several speakers condemned Gimenez’s plan to cut charity grants by 10 percent next year. “I don’t think anybody in this audience or in this community imagined that we would be discussing cuts in social services,” said Gespie Metellus, executive director of the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center. “I urge you to work your magic.”

Last week, Gimenez announced a less austere budget, saying he would divert payments to county reserves, impose a new health plan on supervisors and other non-union workers, and redirect hotel taxes in order to cancel more than 100 planned cuts to police jobs. Also spared was Doral’s Midwest police station, which Gimenez’s budget originally slated for closure. About 110 police-officer jobs still are on the chopping block, along with a number of other layoffs, service cuts and fee increases, including higher bus fares.

Gimenez is asking county unions to accept a less-generous health plan in order to avoid some of the planned cuts. Talks with the police union are not going well. Earlier Thursday, the director of the Police Benevolent Association, Blanca Torrents Greenwood, emerged from a private meeting with Gimenez and called him “condescending” in an interview. Gimenez countered by saying he’s already dropped demands for extended union pay concesions and found ways to reduce police-job cuts without the union offering any concessions.

“Right now, they’re doing all the taking,” he said. “And I’m doing all of the giving.”

Next year’s budget calls for spending $1 million on police body cameras, with another $400,000 in operating costs tied to the devices and the data storage required. Though they record automatically, the cameras run on a loop to conserve memory. Officers must activate the save function when encountering a civilian in order for the footage to be preserved long-term, county police officials said.

Gimenez said he has been pushing the police department for the last two years to purchase the cameras, and that he instructed police brass at a staff meeting Thursday to get every officer equipped with one as soon as possible. He said the Ferguson incident added to the urgency.

“I think camers on every police officer will actually reduce the number of complaints about excessive force,” he said.

Juan Perez, the deputy director of the Miami-Dade police force, said a test of the products earlier this year already produced positive results. After a deadly high-speed chase, investigators found rescue workers had left a crime technicians unable to reproduce how a victim died. One of the responding officers was wearing a camera on his shirt collar, and investigators were able to see the bodies undisturbed before paramedics began treatment.

“This is a way of evidence collection that didn’t exist in the past,” Perez said.

At the town hall, Ernst Jean Lewis, editor of a local Creole newspaper, questioned why Gimenez would spend on new equipment while planning to cut back on actual police-officer posts. “Should homeowners suffer a break-in, could you provide that homeowner with a camera to provide protection?” he asked through a Creole translator.

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