Miami Beach cops begin trial of police body cameras

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

The lights dim in a cramped room on the second floor of the Miami Beach Police Department. A 60-inch high-definition TV sheds a blue hue. A woman appears on screen. The camera gets closer, capturing her voice and offering a clear view into her car. An out-of-view police officer speaks to her, directing her off the road.

Over the next three months, that scene and similar ones inside homes and at crime scenes will be play out before the camera’s eye as Miami Beach joins a wave of law enforcement adapting to body cameras.

On Tuesday, the city laid out its initial plan: By the end of May, 30 officers, mostly traffic cops to begin with, will place the small square cameras on their uniforms.

A camera is activated with the press of a button at the start of any interaction. When a shift is over, the officer will return to the station and place the camera on a charger that sends the recording to a cloud, stored for future use.

Video that isn’t important will be deleted in 90 days. Video that includes the use of force or injury to an officer or another person will be stored for five years and will be available through a public record request.

Though the camera will always be on, it will only record when an officer turns on a small switch at the top of the device.

Officers will use the video to help craft accurate incident reports. Their supervisors will use the palm-size cameras to evaluate the officers. Prosecutors will use it as a tool in search of guilt. And lawyers will use the videos to defend their clients.

Miami Beach Police Department debuts body cameras at press conference.

“There are a host of valuable reasons behind this,” said Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates, who deployed the system as chief in Aurora, Colorado, for two years before coming to Miami Beach. “The nationwide political will is for it to occur [throughout the country] in the next five years.”

The launch of the three-month pilot program has its critics. Even with public calls for mandatory body cameras following the deaths of unarmed men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and more recently Baltimore, police rank-and-file continue to fight it. Fraternal Order of Police President Bobby Jenkins said his biggest concern is the split-second an officer takes to turn on the camera and the possible loss of focus.

“An officer is going to think twice because it takes too long, and get hurt,” Jenkins said.

Miami Beach parking and code enforcement workers have worn the cameras since the fall, and though they initially resisted the technology, it seems to be catching on.

“We still have to sit down and negotiate the impact on employees. But it seems like it could be a useful tool,” said Richard McKinnon, president of the workers union that represents parking and code enforcement.

Activist groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida are on board with the city’s plan, though they want an even more aggressive approach: cameras rolling for an entire patrol shift.

“If not, that’s problematic,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “There could be crucial information missing. The exception should be when it’s turned off, not when it’s turned on.”

Oates and other supporters say the biggest drawback to leaving the camera on during an officer’s entire shift is the cost. Storing the video is by far the largest chunk of the expected $3 million bill every five years. The chief also said it also would be “wholly inappropriate” for an officer to be forced to tape a private personal conversation.

Some say the new tool will be especially useful in Miami Beach, which has suffered a string of embarrassing incidents. Officers were cleared recently of a 2011 Memorial Day shooting that left four innocent bystanders wounded and a driver dead after his car was pumped with over 100 bullets. The scene was captured on cellphone video.

That same year, an officer on a beach joyride with a bride-to-be on the back of his ATV, ran over and seriously injured two people lying in the sand. There was no videotape of that incident.

And just Monday, Miami Beach police Detective Philippe Archer was docked a month’s pay after surveillance video caught him kicking and then punching a woman in the face who had already been handcuffed and was standing outside a Miami Beach hotel.

Criminal defense attorney and Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco supports the new system, saying it will help to protect officers and residents.

“Generally speaking, it’s hard to cross-examine a videotape. You can’t claim the video is lying,” he said. “The privacy concern” — of taping in people’s homes or of recording private conversations — “is really where the argument starts and ends. I don’t where the line would be drawn.”

Miami, Jacksonville, Ark., Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Dallas are among cities trying the technology. Austin, Memphis, Nashville, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago have plans in place to use body cameras.

But it’s not cheap. Estimates for outfitting the New York City Police Department are as high as $2 billion. And though President Barack Obama is calling for federal funding, so far it hasn’t materialized. Only about $20 million in federal grants for cameras are available, small for a nation with about one million sworn officers.

The Miami Beach cameras are supplied by Taser International, the same company that outfits most South Florida police departments with electronic shock devices.

Miami began a similar trial system several months ago and officer reactions remain mixed. Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said some of his officers see value in it and others don’t. He said he is aware of some cases that have been cleared because of footage and that the most grumblings have been over technical issues. The technology has also been embraced by the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy organization made up of top cops from around the country. Miami-Dade police, the largest police organization in the southeastern U.S., does not use the system.

Oates, the Miami Beach police chief, is convinced that the cameras will help police. He said in the two years the system was in place in his former city in Colorado, the police department didn’t receive a single complaint about an officer. The reasons, he said, were twofold: The public is less apt to file a false complaint if video is running, and an officer is less likely to act inappropriately.

“Cops in Aurora were anxious and hesitant. But I’m absolutely convinced cops will embrace the technology,” Oates said. “Every veteran cop in this country has been on a witness stand and been attacked by an attorney who said this or that didn’t happen. With this, the knife will be right there. You’ll know when the defendant said ‘I did it.’ It’s all right there on camera.”

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