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Panama City Beach Police Officers Will Soon Wear Body Cams

Panama City Beach Police Department

Panama City Beach police officers will soon begin using body cams while out on patrol.

City Council members unanimously voted on Thursday to spend almost $268,000 on 60 body cams for the city’s police department. Funding for the new technology was included in next year’s budget.

Police Chief Drew Whitman says he expects officers will begin using the cameras when responding to calls in November. After the department receives the equipment and software, he says, they’ll learn how to use the technology and still protect people’s privacy.

“It’s just to educate the officers when to turn them on, when to not turn them on, just so they don’t violate people’s civil liberties when they’re inside their homes,” he said.

Whitman says officers and staff will also undergo training on how to release footage - particularly of children - to the public. “Certain people are protected from public records requests like victims or witnesses,” he said. “We would have to blur their faces and make sure that we don’t release their identification.”

The cameras are expected to help the department better serve residents, he said.

“If they’re a victim of a crime, we have that for evidence,” Whitman said. “If I have an officer out there that does violate our policies and procedures or mistreats our community, we have something we can show that we were wrong.”

Though the department doesn’t struggle with too many complaints against officers, the cameras could show what took place if one is filed, Whitman said. “We have evidence if they’ve done something wrong or we can prove that they didn’t violate any of our standard operations procedures.”

Lynn Haven’s police officers have already begun using body cams, while other law enforcement agencies in Bay County haven’t yet adopted the technology.

When discussing the proposal at a July meeting, Panama City Beach Mayor Mark Sheldon told fellow council members that equipping officers with body cams has been one of his priorities since taking office in late April.

“This was something I think on my first day I asked the city manager about,” he said. “I believe it’s a huge asset for us.”

Sheldon also suggested city council members consider funding for police dashboard cameras in the next couple of years. “It’s another protection measure for our officers and for our community,” he said.

At that same meeting, City Council Member Geoff McConnell described a decision to purchase the cameras as “good all around.”

“It’s good for our residents. It’s good for the police. It’s good for our conviction rate.”

Police Chief Whitman says he expects the added transparency will strengthen the community’s trust in local law enforcement. “If they do have an issue, we can show them the video.”

Whitman says every complaint against an officer is reviewed and could end in disciplinary action, possibly even criminal charges.

“Our officers and myself are no better than anyone else,” he said. “No one’s above the law.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.