Miami-Dade County

For police cameras, going dark can be the challenge

A publicity photo from Taser showing the kind of body camera Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez wants for county police officers.
A publicity photo from Taser showing the kind of body camera Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez wants for county police officers.

If a Miami-Dade police officer turns on a body camera, who decides to have it turned off?

That’s a central question facing elected leaders as they inch Miami-Dade closer to joining a national wave of police agencies mandating the miniature surveillance cameras. With public opinion squarely favoring the cameras and local politicians also backing them, the main debate is settling on the rules for when exactly filming should start and when it should stop.

“I want to make sure we protect people’s privacy when there is no criminality involved,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said. He plans to mount a lobbying campaign to modify Florida’s strict open-record laws to exempt some body-camera footage, or else adopt rules requiring officers to get permission to film when they’re not dealing with a suspect.

“We want to make sure we record what we need to record,” said Gimenez, who proposed bringing body-cameras to Miami-Dade months before an Aug. 9 police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., vaulted them into a national cause. “But we also don’t want to overdo it.”

With one of the largest police forces in the country, Miami-Dade is facing an amplified set of complications as it considers a technology that some law-enforcement researchers still consider novel.

“There is little evidence regarding most of the perceived benefits and drawbacks of the technology,” Arizona State criminology professor Michael White wrote in a 2014 report commissioned by the U.S. Justice Department. “Simply put, there is not enough evidence to offer a definitive recommendation regarding the adoption of body-worn cameras by police.”

Miami-Dade plans to spend millions buying about 1,500 cameras over the coming years at a time when budget challenges prompted Gimenez to threaten significant job cuts to police in 2014. And it is moving forward with the plan in the face of objections from the local police union, which complains Gimenez is using the cameras to boost his political standing without taking the time to sort out the challenges of implementing them.

“We had a mayor who did a knee-jerk reaction. Now it’s sort of embarrassing to get out of it,” said John Rivera, president of Police Benevolent Association union. “We don’t know whether the negatives outweigh the positives. You’re going to go into good people’s homes, and see them at their worst.”

On Dec. 2, county commissioners unanimously approved a resolution instructing the Gimenez administration to consult with Rivera’s union in drafting a set of body-camera regulations for the commission to approve. The document is bound to be a catalog of fault lines in a debate unfolding across the country, as political leaders call for wide adoption of the cameras and skeptics push back on the growing pressure to use them.

While limited, the academic research on body cameras has produced encouraging results. The Mesa, Ariz., police department reported a 48 percent drop in citizen complaints against police officers once cameras were used, and in Rialto, Calif., use of police force plunged 60 percent once officers were required to film interactions.

The White House this month announced a $130 million program to boost camera programs, including $75 million in matching funds for local governments. A state representative from Broward, Shevrin Jones, recently introduced a bill mandating cameras for all Florida police agencies. Miami Beach is drawing up procedures for its new camera program, which goes beyond police officers to include code enforcement officers and parking-ticket writers.

Body cameras are fueling a surge in sales for Taser, the leading manufacturer of the devices. In the 90 days that ended in June, well before the fatal Ferguson shooting of an unarmed teenager, the company’s body-camera division generated almost $5 million sales — a 135 percent increase over the prior year. Taser says roughly 1,200 police agencies have ordered the cameras, which sell for about $600 each. Video storage is a profit center for Taser, which charges as much as $1,200 a year to upload a camera’s footage onto its archive system.

The cameras themselves are about the size of a lighter, and can be attached to a hat, glasses, and shirts. They record video at all times, on a 30-second loop that is constantly replaced with new footage. When an officer activates the record mode, the camera preserves the last 30 seconds of silent video and instantly begins recording sound, too. The recording continues until the officer turns off the camera.

Miami-Dade commissioners approved $1 million for the program this year. Budget documents show police requested about $850,000 to purchase 500 cameras in 2015, and that a year’s worth of data storage for the devices would cost $400,000. Another $2 million in one-time data upgrades would be needed for 15 police stations across the county, and a draft request for bids says Miami-Dade ultimately wants to buy 1,500 cameras.

“They’re very expensive,” said Gene Gibbons, a lawyer representing the Miami Beach police union, which he said generally supports using the cameras but has concerns about policies and costs. “How much are we going to spend on this one tool?”

Daytona Beach started using its police cameras in 2012, giving it one of the longest track-records with the devices in Florida. In November 2013, Daytona police shot former NFL player Jermaine Green six times while he held his girlfriend hostage with a knife. “The community said, ‘Oh, you didn’t have to shoot him,’’’ recalled department spokesman Jimmy Flint. Police showed community leaders and Flint’s family the video. “That pretty much quelled it,” he said.

Law enforcement officials see pitfalls in letting officers have the discretion to film when they want, which means departmental rules must lay out when cameras shouldn’t be used.

Daytona Beach modified its original policy to require officers to notify crime victims that a camera is rolling “and request consent to continue.” Orlando, in the midst of a pilot camera program, also has a policy that limits residential footage. It requires filming inside a private home if a crime was committed there, but otherwise gives the homeowner the option to have a camera turned off.

Miami-Dade County actually already has a body-camera policy, which was drafted in advance of a 30-day test of 19 cameras in the fall of 2013 to gauge which brand of equipment functioned best. The six-page document includes a broad advisory on privacy, telling officers not to film “in places where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, such as dressing rooms, restrooms and some crime scenes.”

It has more detailed prohibitions against filming fellow officers, saying the cameras can’t be used during breaks or while completing reports. The policy instructs officers to film accident scenes, “citizen contacts,” and statements made by victims and witnesses. “Consideration may be given when a victim requests not to be recorded,” the policy states. “Contact an on-duty supervisor for resolution, if needed.”

With the test lasting only 30 days, the stakes weren’t high for the county’s first camera policy. Gimenez said he wants the final rules to include stronger safeguards for civilians who aren’t suspected of a crime. “I want to make sure we protect people’s privacy when there is no criminality involved,” he said. “One way you could do it is say, ‘Do you mind being tape recorded?’’

In the Miami area, where Justin Bieber was famously in custody and even the animal-control squad got a reality show, heightened interest in police action is sure to make hot commodities out of some footage. Something as mundane as a rowdy party could yield salacious footage if the public could see what an officer watched while issuing noise citations or alcohol violations.

“Maybe a neighbor doesn’t like you, and says: ‘You know what, I’m going to do a public records request,’’’ said Tom Knight, the elected sheriff of Sarasota County. “Then you end up on YouTube.”

For Knight, the public’s right to camera footage has left him against using the technology until Florida lawmakers find a way to keep some of the filming confidential. He maintains that it’s too complicated to try and craft rules for when a camera should be shuttered, since officers will apply the protocols in different ways.

“My legal department says we can’t train 418 patrol deputies when to turn them on, and when to turn them off,” he said. With looser public-record laws, Knight said agency lawyers could review footage to see if it violated privacy standards and then keep it confidential. “I’ll take media or public scrutiny before I jump into something.”

Gimenez has resisted efforts to slow Miami-Dade’s entry into body cameras. He swatted down a suggestion to start with voluntary camera use by new Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who enjoyed strong police-union support in her recent election campaign.

“I think if you have a change of this sort, in an atmosphere where there are concerns, it’s often really good policy to start with early adopters,” Levine Cava told the mayor during the Dec. 2 meeting. Gimenez conceded the county’s purchasing plan would involve phasing in the cameras, but noted: “Eventually, every officer on the street needs to have this.”

Related stories from Miami Herald