House Panel To Vote On Soon-To-Be-Changed Body Cameras Bill Next Month

Jan 23, 2015

Credit MGN Online

In the coming weeks, lawmakers are expected to vote on a bill mandating law enforcers across Florida wear body cameras while on patrol. But, the measure’s sponsor says it will now look different, after recent concerns were raised during a workshop in the House earlier this week.

While the measure has not been officially taken up by lawmakers, Rep. Shevrin Jones’ (D-West Park) body cameras bill was discussed during a House Criminal Justice Subcommittee workshop Tuesday.

And, as he’s said in the past, Jones says his bill is not meant to be anti-police.

“The one thing you’ll never catch me doing is creating something that goes totally against public safety,” said Jones. “So, this is not the blame bill to go against police officers. But, what body cameras does do is it allows the police to be protected from false allegations. If you look at a lot of the reports that has come about, whether it be in California, whether it be in Sanford, whether it be in different areas, they have shown the benefits of what has taken place by them rolling out body cameras for the police officer.”

Still, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns about the cameras’ fiscal impact and privacy concerns. Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) says she worries what happens after the videos become public record.

“If I’m an innocent bystander watching something going on and perhaps in a place I didn’t want my neighbor to know I was there, how do I protect myself from something like that when this becomes public record? And, we all know what goes on with things being put up on YouTube. I can understand people’s deep concerns about an individual’s privacy who happens to be in a situation, a place that is being recorded,” said Harrell. 

Law enforcement agencies and unions also weighed in. Springfield Police Chief Philip Thorne representing the Florida Police Chiefs Association says there are a lot of unanswered questions associated with body cameras that a workgroup created by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and consisting of other law agencies are still trying to iron out.

“What’s it going to cost us to keep, repair, replenish cameras,” asked Thorne. “We tell our police officers to video when they’re doing interactions with the public. How are we to limit them on what those interactions are going to be that we record if we’re going to be open and honest, and if it’s for accountability purposes? If we don’t buy the storage, if we utilize a third-party vendor to do our storage for us, what’s that cost going to be?”

Thorne says it should be up to the local chief or governing body to decide, not the state. And, the Florida Sheriff’s Association’s President, St. Johns County Sheriff, David Shoar agrees.

“There are reasons why some communities would want body cameras in their community or some do not, My community, St. Johns County, we don’t have the red light cameras, and we don’t have hardly any cameras because our community hardly ever supports it and we’re able to do our job without it. You know, dashboard cameras, red light cameras are other examples of public safety technology that is a community specific decision, and should be made with our citizens,” said Shoar.

Jones’ bill was filed after high profile use of force incidents occurred in Ferguson, Missouri and New York. But, there really are no Florida statistics regarding use of force incidents, and Stephen Vaughn suggests doing a pilot where universities do a study to chart those stats instead.

Vaughn has been a law enforcement officer for 24 years and a use of force instructor for 17. Also a representative of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, he says while he likes body cameras, there’s a limit to what they can do. And, Vaughn drew comparisons between dash board cams and a body cameras.

“If I’ve made a traffic stop and I’ve pulled an occupant of the vehicle out, and I am taking to them and we are not in front of the car, if something happens in the car—which is entirely possible—say drugs or guns get tossed out of the window, I’ve had that happen to me, it will be captured on that, but it won’t be captured when I’m taking, standing or looking at one of the occupants of the vehicle. There could also be it could capture someone removing themselves from the vehicle with a weapon headed back towards to the police cruiser, which would not be caught by the on body camera of the officer,” said Vaughn.

Speaking for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, State Attorney Glenn Hess says it will also be a problem for both State Attorneys and Public Defenders.

“We do not have the equipment in place to receive, catalog, and store the many, many videos that will be generated for each shift if every patrol officer video tapes their citizen encounters,” said Hess. “This is a problem for the public defenders as well. When they receive a case, they have an obligation to review all of the evidence or potential evidence for their clients. I can tell you if we don’t have the manpower to do it, they certainly don’t have the manpower to do it.”

But, the measure may already be in jeopardy in the Senate, after recent remarks by Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker). He chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the bill’s likely first stop.

“We will address looking at this issue and take testimony and looking into the issue, but as far as actually doing something with it this year, I don’t see it happening, unless somebody on my committee has a better idea that wants to jump into it because there’s certain law enforcement agencies out there that are actually getting these things, and I think what we’ll do is give them an opportunity to sort of feel it out. Then we’ll take and go from there,” said Evers.

Still, Jones is encouraged lawmakers even workshopped the bill. On Friday, he said since the workshop, he’s met again with stakeholders to change his bill to meet many of the concerns raised, which includes local discretion.

“I think how we constructed the new language is something that everybody can get on board with because we’re not mandating anymore, we’re just asking those individuals who have it create some type of structure and have some sort of policies and procedures in place,” said Jones.

Jones says the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is slated to take up the bill next month. And, he’ll be meeting with Senator Evers soon to see if he’ll consider the proposal in the Senate with the new language.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.