The Miami-Dade school district is considering whether to outfit schools police with body-worn cameras that would record their encounters with students.
At a School Board meeting on Wednesday, board members unanimously approved a feasibility study looking at the pros and cons of the wearable cameras. As part of the study, the district will consider whether to implement a pilot program during the 2017-18 school year.
“It would strengthen school police accountability and provide a valuable new type of evidence for them,” said School Board member Maria Teresa Rojas, who proposed the item. Rojas said the proposal was not a response to any incidents involving schools police but rather an effort to be proactive as police forces across the country are considering the cameras.
“I’m asking for this feasibility study so that we can make an informed decision in the future as to what direction we’re going in,” Rojas said. “There’s nothing more important than safety and security for our students and our workforce.”
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Nationwide, body-worn cameras have been touted as a useful technology for investigating complaints against police officers and increasing transparency. But experts say there are also some potential problems with having the cameras in a school setting.
Part of the mission of schools police is to build relationships with students and communities. Having a camera recording everything an officer does could get in the way, said Eugene O’Donnell, a law professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police officer.
“It’s about sending a message to the staff,” O’Donnell said. “Stay out of trouble. Don’t engage. I think poor kids and poor communities are going to suffer the most when the people who get engaged and get involved decide taking the risk is too much.”
Another potential concern is privacy, said Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia and a former police officer. “I don’t necessarily know if you want to be recording juveniles without parental permission. So there could be some legal issues that need to be resolved,” he said, adding that cameras could also discourage students from reporting suspicious behavior to officers.
On the other hand, wearable cameras have been shown to reduce citizen complaints about police behavior, Burke said, and encourage better behavior from both officers and the citizens they interact with.
The school district will also have to consider the costs associated with equipping a police force with cameras and storing the vast quantities of video footage created by the recordings, Burke said.
“They’ve almost come close to bankrupting police departments,” said Dade County Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera, who opposed the county police department’s decision to equip officers with cameras. The county police have so far deployed the cameras to more than 1,000 cops. Last year, the county commission approved spending $1 million a year on the cameras and data storage. It’s unclear how much it would cost to provide wearable cameras to the smaller schools police force, which has nearly 200 officers.
School Board member Rojas said that as part of the district’s feasibility study, staff members will look for grants that could help cover the costs. Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice awarded more than $20 million to police departments for body-worn cameras, including $1 million to the Miami-Dade Police Department.
Schools Police Chief Ian Moffett said that questions about costs and impacts on school policing will be considered as part of the feasibility study. “We will take a look at this from a school policing standpoint and see what happens,” he said.