Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade OKs up to $5 million for police body cameras

Miami Beach Police Sgt. Alex Bello shows a body camera for officers to use on patrol.
Miami Beach Police Sgt. Alex Bello shows a body camera for officers to use on patrol. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Miami-Dade plans to start shopping for police body cameras this week after county commissioners on Tuesday endorsed spending up to $5 million during the next five years on technology aimed at sorting out the facts when citizens are hurt or killed by law enforcement.

Weeks after riots erupted in Baltimore amid allegations of police brutality, Florida’s largest county approved a bidding process that will let vendors compete for an initial purchase of 500 cameras. Those would be purchased with $1 million earmarked in the 2015 budget for body cameras, and Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he plans to ask for additional money in 2016 to buy 500 more.

He said he expects county officers to don the tiny cameras by the end of the year, and told commissioners the devices could spare Miami-Dade from the divisive process of sorting out the facts when a police encounter goes wrong.

“Unrest comes when there is a gap of knowledge,” Gimenez said during the meeting. “This technology, for the most part, eliminates that gap.”

The approval vote capped a nearly year-long push for the cameras by Gimenez, who fought with the police union and some commissioners to win both funding and purchase approval for the devices. He inserted the $1 million for cameras in his 2015 budget weeks before the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a national call for the devices and prompted the White House to urge police departments to purchase them.

While Gimenez didn’t tout the camera proposal when he unveiled his budget last summer, the Ferguson incident moved the plan to a central spot on his public agenda.

Two commissioners on the 13-member board voted against the purchasing plan for the cameras: Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Juan C. Zapata. Diaz noted that even with multiple camera angles available, some calls in football can be disputed. With police cameras, “it’s one angle, it’s one moment in time,” he said. “There are issues there.”

Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava voted for the item but warned against putting too much faith in the technology to fix strife between officers and citizens. “I’m afraid we’re thinking of it as a panacea,” she said.

Leaders of the county’s police union did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, and county officials said labor leaders participated in talks about how to implement a camera system. Advocates see the cameras offering a new level of protection for officers against bogus misconduct claims, since encounters would be captured on video. Critics see the devices as an extra cost burden for a police department with about 280 unfilled positions — as well as setting up an officer’s split-second decisions to be second-guessed by freeze-framed footage.

The cameras are small enough to wear on a lapel, glass frame or hat, and already are in use by police in Miami Beach, Miami and by Customs inspectors at Miami International Airport. Generally, the cameras record audio at all times, but on a loop that eventually records over itself. Once an officer activates the camera, it preserves the prior 30 seconds or so of audio and begins capturing both sound and video.

County policy would require most citizen interactions to be recorded, with exceptions for private settings in households or hospitals or when a victim asks not to be caught on video. J.D. Patterson, the county’s police director, said Miami-Dade needs about 1,200 cameras to equip all patrol officers, and another 1,000 or so for some detectives, tactical officers and others that regularly come in contact with the public. The procurement item approved Tuesday anticipates spending $5 million for 1,500 cameras over the next five years, including storage costs for the footage.

Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who sponsored the camera item, said the devices will exonerate officers falsely accused of brutality. But she also said the footage will force the public to confront the truth of police conduct and not reflexively dismiss complaints of racial bias.

“As has been revealed across the country, it is now more in need than ever that we move forward with this,” she said. “Until we start respecting the lives of individuals, the cameras will tell everybody what’s happening. We’ll no longer be able to just sweep it under the rug.”