Police union tries to block camera plan for Miami-Dade officers

08/22/2014 7:41 PM

08/22/2014 8:17 PM

Miami-Dade’s police union on Friday moved to thwart Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s plan to equip all county patrol officers with wearable surveillance cameras, saying the devices could place “the lives of the public and the officers in danger.”

In a written grievance filed with the county’s police chief, a union lawyer wrote that wearing the cameras “will distract officers from their duties, and hamper their ability to act and react in dangerous situations …”

The paperwork comes a day after Gimenez publicly touted his proposal to spend about $1 million on 500 cameras next year in an effort to cut down on allegations of police misconduct. Gimenez cited the outrage stemming from the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri — an incident that has led to nationwide calls for police agencies to buy cameras that can record every moment of an officer’s shift.

Gimenez’s office dismissed the allegation that cameras could endanger officers, and lumped in the grievance to a growing rift between the mayor and union officials over contract talks.

“It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected,” said Michael Hernández, communications director for Gimenez. “This technology, we feel, will not only be extremely beneficial for all the great officers we have in the Miami-Dade Police Department, but it’s also a way to help citizens have a police department that has 21st century technology.”

The camera plan was in Gimenez’s budget months before the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by a uniformed patrol officer in Ferguson. The incident sparked racial tensions in the town and nationwide, though authorities say they still can’t say what exactly happened prior to the shooting.

At a town hall budget meeting Thursday, Gimenez said body cameras could protect Miami-Dade from the same kind of wrenching fall-out from a police shooting.

“If for some reason we get an incident like what happened in St. Louis, we’ll know right away exactly what happened,” he told the audience in Little Haiti. “And justice will be done. Whatever justice is.”

As described by police officials, Miami-Dade officers would be required to activate the cameras before exiting their vehicles on calls or for traffic stops.

While the cameras record constantly, they do not contain enough memory to save all of the footage. By triggering the device, an officer would cause the camera to preserve the footage until it is again switched to the default mode, according to Juan Perez, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Police Department.

Taser, the maker of controversial stun guns popular with police, manufactures the cameras that Miami-Dade plans to purchase once county commissioners approve the 2015 budget this fall, Perez said. The company’s website shows cameras small enough to mount on eye glasses, hats or collars, with the capability of sending live footage remotely through a nearby cellphone. At the end of a shift, an officer docks the camera to a re-charging station and the footage gets uploaded to a Taser website, evidence.com.

Police departments across the country, including in Daytona and the Orlando area, already use the cameras, and more governments are feeling pressure to institute the surveillance measures after Ferguson. While the Ferguson police department had purchased some cameras, it had not budgeted the money needed to operate them, according to news reports. The Gimenez budget calls for an additional $400,000 in operating expenses tied to the cameras.

In its two-page grievance, the Miami-Dade police union cited the distraction caused by officers having to activate the camera before approaching a traffic stop or potential arrest. “As anyone with knowledge of police training and tactics knows, if an officer hesitates for even a second in a life threatening situation, it can cost that officer his or her life, and/or put the lives of others at risk,” the complaint reads. It also cites footage potentially revealing the identify of undercover officers.

Miami-Dade has 10 days to formally respond to the complaint. If the two sides can’t reach an agreement, the matter would end up in arbitration or Florida’s labor-dispute system. The conflict comes as Gimenez and union leaders are in a public clash over the 2015 budget, which calls for cutting about 150 police jobs. Gimenez wants county unions to accept less-generous healthcare plans in order to cut expenses, which he says will mean no police staffing cuts.

A 2014 study by the U.S. Justice Department urged more research on the impact of body cameras, though it noted existing research confirms the devices tend to accompany a decline in both misconduct allegations and the use of force by officers. Still, it noted there were only five studies on the topic, leaving doubts about the conclusions.

“Police departments should be cautious and deliberate in their exploration of the technology, given the lack of research,” the study said.

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