Miami-Dade commissioners easily approved one of the largest body-camera purchases in the country on Tuesday, authorizing up to 1,500 video devices for the county police force.
In a 12-0 vote, commissioners gave the green light to spending $1 million a year on the wearable cameras and the costly storage that comes with them. County policy will require officers to film most encounters with the public.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez first inserted body cameras in a proposed budget two years ago, months before a fatal police shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a national push to make the cameras mandatory for officers.
Miami-Dade’s police union fought the mayor’s plan, calling it wasteful and political. But Gimenez touted it as an effective way to defuse the tension and violence that can follow incidents where police are accused of deadly wrongdoing. He recalled his time as a Miami firefighter in 1980 during the riots sparked when white police officers were acquitted of the fierce beating of a black insurance agent named Arthur McDuffie.
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“The issue has always been a lack of knowledge,” Gimenez told commissioners. “The police say one thing. The public says something else. No one has any visual evidence of what happened.”
Miami-Dade has one of the largest police forces in the United States, and Gimenez said the contract awarded to a subsidiary of Jacksonville-based Safariland Group should make the county one of the country’s largest purchasers of body cameras.
Police officials expect to have the first wave of body cameras deployed next month in the county’s Midwest precinct, which includes Doral. Roughly the size of a deck of cards, the black devices mount on an officer’s shirt near the badge.
By the end of September, about 1,200 cameras should be in use, said department director Juan Perez. He described the cameras as a countermeasure to civilian cellphone footage, which he suggested can given an incomplete look at high-profile police incidents.
“It will tell a better story for us,” Perez said of the footage, most of which would be considered public records under Florida’s Sunshine laws. “That way, we won’t be focused just on the five seconds someone films of an incident. We’ll have the entire incident.”
John Rivera, head of Miami-Dade’s police union, did not attend the commission meeting but wrote in a March 2 letter to Chairman Jean Monestime that scrutiny is needed for implementation of the program.
“While we accept the inevitable, we maintain our concerns whenever apparatuses are [being] used for political expediency,” he wrote. “In order for this program to succeed, it must be fully vetted and fully transparent.”
Perez opted not to require body cameras for the county’s SWAT team, the unit known for military-style raids. Perez said there were concerns about requiring footage of SWAT in action that would then be available for public viewing.
“We don’t like to record our tactics,” he said in an interview. “If we record our tactics, we get into a situation where we’re exposing our guys.”
Commissioner Barbara Jordan expressed concern about exempting the SWAT team from the cameras, as did Gimenez himself.
“That’s something I’m going to talk to the director about. I want everyone that’s involved with contact [with the public] to have them,” said Gimenez, who served as a medic on Miami’s SWAT team. “When you go on a SWAT mission, there’s a higher probability that something is going to happen. So you probably need to have that documentation.”
In her comments from the commission dais, Jordan questioned the wisdom of buying cameras that don’t automatically record footage. Like most models in use across the country, the cameras Miami-Dade agreed to buy from Safariland’s Vievu record constantly but require an officer’s activation to begin archiving footage.
“It’s left up to the discretion of the officer when they choose to turn it on,” Jordan said. “I kind of have concerns about that.”
It’s left up to the discretion of the officer when they choose to turn it on. I kind of have concerns about that.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan
Perez said Miami-Dade at some point might be able to upgrade to technology that automatically activates cameras when an officer turns on a squad car’s siren or removes a firearm from a holster.
The police department’s policy currently requires officers to activate the cameras before traffic stops and other contacts with the public. But it also allows officers to turn off the cameras to protect the privacy of witnesses and victims. Florida also exempts certain body-camera footage from public-record laws when the material was filmed in a home, healthcare facility or other location where someone has an expectation of privacy.
With Tuesday’s vote, Safariland won a five-year contract worth $5.4 million in all. The county has the option to renew the contract for an additional 15 years, resulting in a $23 million payment to the company through 2036. In September, the county announced a $1 million federal grant to defray body-camera costs.
Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz left the meeting before Tuesday’s unanimous vote. His arrest on drunken driving charges in Key West last summer was captured by police body cameras, but he had raised concerns about the county’s program months before the well-publicized incident.