The sponsor of a bill requiring law enforcement across the state to wear police body cameras calls his bill a win-win for everyone. But, at least one group representing thousands of Florida police officers disagrees with the proposed mandate.
Rep. Shevrin Jones (D-West Park) filed the bill. Former Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith is set to file the Senate companion.
“It’s called the “Police and Citizens Protection Act,” and what we’re doing is the bill relating to recording law enforcement activities and requiring uniform officers assigned to patrol duties to be equipped with body cameras,” said Jones.
The issue of body cameras and excessive use of force has come up in recent weeks following two grand jury decisions not to indict officers in the fatal incidents of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City—the latter incident was caught on camera.
“As far as the Eric Garner situation, we really have to look closer in making sure that police officers take a greater look at how they handle these types of situations and how they handle people and, then vice versa. The people need to make sure they are cognizant of how they are handling a police officers because they too are human beings,” he added.
But, Jones says as far as his bill requiring the body cameras, it’s a win for all involved.
“When individuals know that there is another layer of accountability that’s on them, I believe that both parties—the citizens and the police officers, they find themselves to double check themselves before doing anything outside the code in which they should be doing,” continued Jones.
“Well, I think that’s a talking point right now and not anything that he can back up with any kind of empirical data. It sounds good for him to say that, but I don’t think he really knows the answer,” the FPBA's Matt Puckett responded.
Puckett is the Executive Director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents thousands of police officers. His thoughts on the bill?
“I think it’s an overreach,” he stated. “It goes too far in mandating that police officers throughout the state will have to wear body cameras when they’re engaging in certain types of behavior.”
He says after speaking and surveying other officers across the state, one of their main problems with the camera is having their integrity questioned, based on the Eric Garner and Michael Brown incidents.
“I think there’s a question in the public right now about the profession's integrity,” Puckett added. “It’s upsetting to a lot of the officers that their integrity is being questioned to this point to where unless they have cameras, they can’t be trusted. And, I agree with them. I think that’s an incredibly unfair kind of blanket indictment on the profession.”
Puckett also shared some of the officers’ concerns.
“We’re very concerned about officer privacy, the public’s privacy, and what the penalties will be if these cameras fail or if they’re not deployed, what consequences to the officer will that have,” he asked.
And, he says while the bill allows for some exceptions—like in cases where someone might have to wear a wire—Puckett says the measure doesn’t account for other sensitive subjects.
“You’ve got to think about the officers’ interactions with certain folks,” he said. “Let’s say you’re dealing with a victim of some type of abuse—domestic or sexual abuse—having a camera pointed at them, that’s going to be a real problem. That’s already a problematic circumstance to begin with, and I think this further exaggerates that problem.”
And, he says even if police body cameras are worn, what’s shown in the video in question may not sway either side from their original opinion of a situation.
“I’m a sports fan,” stated Puckett. “I like football. And, we have instant replay now. And, depending on where you are or who you’re pulling for, no matter what you see, you still may question a call, even if it’s pretty clear that the call should have gone against you. You know, there’s just a lot of issues. It’s hard to take the emotions out of these circumstances. It really is. None of us know what Michael Brown or Officer Wilson were feeling in that moment.”
In closing, Puckett says departments may also be faced with a financial burden, and thinks a cost-benefit analysis should be done first.
“I don’t know where’s the legislature going to come up with the money for that,” he continued. “You’re going to have agencies that can’t afford to purchase the cameras, can’t afford to store the data, and we’ll probably have trouble fulfilling the public records requests that will inevitably be asked for following the implementation of this. We’re not against body cameras, but we think they need to be studied.”
Meanwhile, Representative Jones says one of his goals is to make sure this is not an unfunded mandate. He’s already in talks with other law enforcement agencies across the state.
“What I want us to be able to do is definitely sit down and have a conversation and look at ways we can put body cameras on police officers without taxing the department,” said Jones. “And, we also can look at the dollars that are coming federally. How can we bring those dollars down from Washington to aid in body cameras? Maybe we use it as a pilot program in a county, see how it works and then, it matriculates over. But, something has to happen.”
While the Florida Sheriff’s Association has not come out with a position yet, there are multiple departments who have or are already looking to pursue this, including Wakulla County in the Panhandle.
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