Miami-Dade County moved closer on Wednesday to requiring body cameras for its police officers, with commissioners giving early approval for what’s being touted as a high-tech answer to chronic concerns about police brutality.
“It’s really taking us to where the country is going,” said Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who sponsored the camera plan that was approved by a committee with one no vote. “This is one way to safeguard our police department as well as our community.”
The measure faces resistance from the county police union, which calls the push to spend $1 million a year on cameras a hasty move amid a budget crunch for law enforcement. Members of the labor group didn’t speak up against the body-camera plan during the commission’s Metropolitan Services committee meeting, but they did take the microphone earlier to warn about staffing shortages at the Miami-Dade Police Department.
“We are working short-handed,” said John Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association. “Some calls are taking longer than ever before.”
Mayor Carlos Gimenez inserted $1 million for body cameras in the 2015 budget last summer, before they became a national cause on the heels of the fatal shooting by police of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Gimenez championed the devices after Ferguson, and has made body cameras a top issue as he heads into a reelection campaign in 2016.
The issue has gathered national momentum, with the White House endorsing the devices and civil-rights leaders and others calling for increased surveillance of law enforcement after the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody.
Miami Beach issued body cameras to its code inspectors and parking officers last fall, and this month began rolling out the devices for its police force. Miami also is in the early stages of implementing body cameras, as is the Miami Customs division, according to a county report. Daytona Beach was one of the first cities in Florida to use the technology, starting its program in 2012.
The full 13-member county commission ultimately must approve the measure that the committee passed 4-1, with Jose “Pepe” Diaz the dissenter. “I’m not there yet,” he said.
Juan Perez, the county’s deputy police director, said the plan is to buy 1,000 cameras for a police department with 4,000 employees and a yearly budget of about $575 million. The bidding specifications say that Miami-Dade will spend $5 million over the next five years on the program, which includes purchasing equipment as well as the costs of storing the video footage.
A department report estimates that a typical officer with a camera will generate 750 gigabytes of digitized footage each year (more than five times the storage available on the fanciest iPhone). To save money, Miami-Dade plans to delete footage not marked as evidence after 60 days.
The commission measure authorizes Miami-Dade to seek bidders for a $5-million, five-year contract to provide and service the cameras, which can be worn on eyeglasses, shirts and hats by officers.
A body camera always records audio on a loop, but only starts capturing video when the officer activates the device. It then safeguards at least 30 seconds of the audio before activation, and continues recording full sound and video until the officer turns it off.
Miami-Dade’s draft policy requires officers to turn on the cameras for all traffic stops, “citizen contacts” tied to law enforcement, prison transports and statements made by suspects, victims and witnesses.
This year, the Florida Legislature passed a bill exempting police-camera footage from state public-records law if the video is from a private residence, a mental-health facility or other places where a “reasonable person” would expect privacy. A proposed policy from the Miami-Dade police department would give officers latitude to turn off a camera at the request of a victim.
“Officers should balance the need to capture data of non-evidentiary value with the dignity of individuals who may be experiencing matters of a personal nature,” the policy states.
“We want officers to use their training and judgment,” Deputy Mayor Russell Benford said Wednesday.