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Special Report: Body Cameras

BAY COUNTY, Fla. - Body cameras have become standard issue for many law enforcement officers around the country, but the majority of agencies are not using the sometime controversial equipment.

Advocates say the cameras provide accountability, others aren't so sure.

With every officer-involved shooting, especially when the shootings involve minorities like Walter Scott and Philando Castile, the calls for police accountability become stronger.

"Once upon a time, the officers word and integrity was all that needed to be said," Anthony Kelly, Mexico Beach's police chief, said.

However, that's not the case any longer, especially when civil rights advocates point to new technology that they say will help provide that accountability.

Body cameras are helping to shape conversations about how to police our communities. 

"Everybody should be in favor of a body camera because it protects everybody," Al Sauline, a criminal defense lawyer, said.

Mexico Beach, Parker, and Lynn Haven all require their officers to wear the cameras while on-duty. Lynn haven began using them about two years ago.

When an officer wants to start recording, he or she presses a button once, and the officer is good to go. It captures everything the person sees and hears until pressing that button again.

"The pros outweigh the cons when it comes to the cost of the equipment and the data storage," Matt Reimer, Lynn Haven's police chief. 

Cheif Reimer argues body cameras are beneficial for both the officer and the public. 

"The biggest reason is officer safety," he said, "when they write their reports, they're accurate, they're thorough, and complete."

Mexico Beach bought body cameras about three years ago.

"It paid for itself pretty much the first day out," Anthony Kelly, Mexico Beach's Police Chief, said.

Chief Kelly said body cam video proved one of his officers was unjustly accused by a suspect, just days after officers began wearing them.

"The return that you get back from a third-person's eye view, that records any situation that the officer's involved, just saves thousands of dollars in the end. It shows the community that we're here to protect each and every day, that we're not hiding anything," Kelly said.

Not all local departments are sold on the entire body camera argument.   

"How do we get there, how do we do that, what's the benefit gain from it?" Scott Ervin, Panama City's Police Chief, said.

He said they've done the research and like many larger agencies, can't justify the cost. "It would be $800,000 for the initial cost," Ervin said.

Buying the equipment is only the beginning.

Ervin says body cameras are complex, and would likely require hiring additional staff to manage the system video and the public records requests. 

"The biggest thing is where do we find the funding to make it happen," he said.

Ervin has considered applying for grants and approaching the city commission. For now, it's a dead issue.

For the Bay County Sheriff's Office, cost is only one of the concerns.

"When we receive a call, somebody needs us desperately most of the time. We see them at their worst point in their life. Do we want to record that and make it available for everybody else to see?" Joel Heape, BCSO's Chief Deputy, said.

"If a person is arrested, that body cam video is going to become a public record," Sauline said.

"We've had officers come up to us and ask to buy their own body cameras. The officers are not against it. I'll go back to what I said about privacy," Heape said.

While the sheriff's office isn't considering body cameras right now, that doesn't mean it won't sometime in the future.

"We always want to hear what the community has got to say, cause they're why they're here," Heape said.

Last year, Florida senators considered a proposal that would have required at all law enforcement agencies to use body cameras. It failed to pass, and the legislature is not considering a similar bill this year.

We'd like to know what you think. Go to our Facebook page and vote yes or no on our poll question: Do you think all Florida law enforcement agencies should require officers to wear body cameras?
 


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