Crime

1,000 body cameras rolling out for Miami-Dade police officers

Miami Beach Police Sgt. Alex Bello, in charge of the department wears a body camera during a demonstration at a news conference, Tuesday, May 5, 2015, in Miami Beach.
Miami Beach Police Sgt. Alex Bello, in charge of the department wears a body camera during a demonstration at a news conference, Tuesday, May 5, 2015, in Miami Beach. AP File

Francisco Perez Trejo was shot in the arm by a Miami-Dade police officer, either because Trejo reached for something inside his Toyota Camry after refusing to roll down his window — or because the cop feared he was going to be hit by the car.

Three weeks later, it’s still unclear which explanation given by police is more accurate. The one given the night of the shooting on April 4. Or the version offered the next day. There was no visual recording of the incident.

Very soon, though, those discrepancies could become a thing of the past for Miami-Dade police. On Thursday, after more than a year of debate and controversy, the department will begin the deployment of body cameras on its police officers.

“Not only will cameras protect innocent people from wrongful attacks by the police, but it will also protect the police from wrongful attacks by people,” said Trejo’s attorney Judd Rosen. “It’s a win-win and a no-brainer for the community.”

The move to cameras for Miami-Dade police, the largest law-enforcement agency in the southeastern United States, has been hailed by police brass, administrators and much of the public. But it’s still eyed warily by many officers and their union representation.

That’s to be expected, said Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates, whose officers began using the technology nearly a year ago. The chief said the biggest difficulty his department has faced is training the officers on how to use software that comes with the cameras, which often takes as much as five hours.

Miami Beach Police Department debuts body cameras at press conference.

“It’s pretty much where I expected to be a year in. It’s been helpful in documenting proper behavior by officers when people said they acted improperly,” Oates said. “At first, there was distrust. Now there’s a grudging acceptance.”

Oates said the cameras have been helpful in a couple of cases that are now being investigated by internal affairs. He wouldn’t go into detail because the cases remain active.

On Thursday, county brass will gather at Miami-Dade police headquarters in Doral to formally announce the initiative and demonstrate the latest video technology. At first, patrol officers in the Midwest district and their sergeants will wear the cameras. By June, 350 officers in several districts are expected to be wearing them. And by the end of September, the cameras will be deployed to more than 1,000 cops covering all the county’s districts.

“Body-worn cameras will not only help us capture valuable data that was previously unavailable to our officers and detectives, but will help reduce complaints, maintain accountability and build upon our trust and legitimacy,” Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said in a statement.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez pushed hard for the intitiative, arguing it’s an effective deterrent for the tension and violence that often follow incidents in which police are accused of using excessive force. The mayor actually proposed the move several months before a national push that began in 2014 after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot to death by a police officer.

County policy calls for officers to activate their cameras before traffic stops and other contact with citizens out in public. It allows for the cameras to be turned off to protect the privacy of witnesses and victims. Perez also decided not to outfit the SWAT team with cameras, wary of its tactics being recorded.

The county has also created a website, www.miamidade.gov/police/bodycams.asp, that will be activiated with the unveiling of the county’s plan on Thursday morning. Commissioners voted unanimously to spend $5.4 million on the cameras over five years with the option of adding another 15 years for an additional $23 million.

State law requires police agencies to store the video for at least 90 days. It also exempts the recordings from public requests if they take place in a private home, a healthcare facility, or any place someone can reasonably expect the right of privacy.

Nationwide, police body cameras have had mixed reviews. Many departments are still grappling with access to footage by civil liberty groups, which are often kept in the dark under the guise of an open investigation. A Washington Post investigation earlier this year found that officers accused of misconduct or excessive force were often given access to the footage, which was rarely made public.

Houston has outfitted 4,000 officers. San Antonio purchased 2,200 cameras. And 1,400 cops in Chicago were using them as of January. Los Angeles has already approved buying 7,000 cameras, though officers aren’t using them yet.

Locally, Miami and Miami Beach have about 100 cameras each, though the Beach has purchased 300 more that will go online in chunks over the next year as the city takes part in a U.S. Department of Justice study on the technology.

The Miami-Dade plan has its doubters. Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera maintains the camera plan is being rushed for political reasons — there’s a mayoral election in August.

On Wednesday, Rivera said officers had not yet seen a training plan and that he had just been handed a copy of the rules police must follow while using the devices, which are about the size of a deck of cards and are mounted on the front of a shirt.

“We think the program will not only be a failure,” said the union president, “but it will compound issues in the future.”

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