City of Sarasota staff directed to research body cameras for at least Police Department Patrol Division members

Program likely would not be established until next fiscal year, because of budget issues resulting from COVID-19 pandemic

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie makes a point during the June 15 City Commission meeting, which was conducted via Webex technology. News Leader image

With Sarasota Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie having revived the topic, the City Commission voted unanimously this week to authorize staff research into the steps necessary for at least the members of the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) Patrol Division to wear body cameras.

Freeland Eddie made the motion after about 35 minutes of discussion during the board’s regular meeting on June 15, and Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded it.

Freeland Eddie formally called for city administrative staff to coordinate efforts with the SPD, the city’s Human Resources Department, the Office of the City Attorney, and any other appropriate personnel, regarding the purchase of body cameras and then provide a report to the board. While she indicated early on during the discussion that she hoped the camera expense could be part of the city’s 2021 budget, in her motion, Freeland Eddie asked that the commission complete the staff report “by the end of the year,” at the latest.

The 2021 fiscal year will begin on Oct. 1.

At the recommendation of Commissioner Hagen Brody, Freeland Eddie later amended the motion to call for the State Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office of the 12th Judicial Circuit to be included in the research and planning.

Although $250,000 was set aside in both the 2019 and current fiscal year budgets for the potential purchase of body cameras for SPD, that $500,000 has been “swept” in the effort to keep the city budget balanced this year amid the economic downturn brought about by the novel coronavirus pandemic, City Manager Tom Barwin explained.

However, he continued, if the commissioners wanted staff to do so, funds could be taken from the city’s reserves to replace that money, to get an initiative underway before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

Yet, SPD Chief Bernadette DiPino pointed out, “It would cost more money than $500,000,” even if the board members wanted to equip just the department’s approximately 100 Patrol Division members.

Additionally, DiPino said, it would be necessary to bargain with the two police unions before the cameras could be put into operation.

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino. Photo courtesy Sarasota Police Department

As she did during City Commission discussions about body cameras when preparation of the 2019 fiscal year budget was underway, DiPino further explained, “There are significant costs” beyond the expense of the equipment itself. Funding would be needed for storage and maintenance of the data the cameras collected, she said. The department also would need to hire one person to handle the oversight of those operations and a second person who would be responsible for handling public records requests and the provision of data to the court system. That second employee, DiPino noted, would be in charge of any necessary redactions of video, to ensure the department did not violate state laws.

In July 2019, City Manager Barwin pointed out that the SPD estimated the total expense of the use of body cameras for every sworn SPD officer, plus the ancillary costs DiPino had described, would have been about $2.5 million for five years.

“I just want to make sure that we get the most current and up-to-date figures and costs,” Commissioner Hagen Brody responded. However, he added, “Dipping into the reserves is not a sustainable solution to pay for what will be an ongoing cost.”

“I have been a proponent of the body cameras,” DiPino told the commissioners. Still, she cautioned, while the cameras provide extra information, the resulting video also can raise more questions. For an example, she noted disputes that arise over referees’ calls in NFL games, even though the League “has multiple camera angles [during games].”

“As a former prosecutor,” Brody said, “I’ve learned that juries in our area … are expecting to see more and more video of incidents. … All evidence is good evidence, no matter what it shows. You want a clear record of what happened.”

“I’m also a former prosecutor,” Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie pointed out. “We’re seeking the truth.” Providing body cameras to the SPD, she added, is making another tool available for the criminal justice system. “This is for us to get in line with the best practices. … Right now, we are at a disadvantage because we don’t have that particular tool.”

During the discussion, commissioners made clear their support of the Police Department. “Believe me,” Commissioner Shaw said in seconding Freeland Eddie’s motion, “it is not an [indictment] upon SPD.”

In fact, he pointed out, it was not body camera footage that was integral to showing what happened to George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis; instead, it was video shot by a bystander.

He was referring to the incident in which a Minneapolis Police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck and refused to ease up even after Floyd cried out that he could not breathe.

“I think that the public, even more, has the weapon of the camera … to present other angles that are not always shown [by body cameras],” Shaw continued.

Getting to this point

A police officer wears a body camera. Photo by Max Pixel via Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of the June 15 discussion, Freeland Eddie and City Attorney Robert Fournier reviewed earlier City Commission and SPD actions involving body cameras.

In 2014, Freeland Eddie noted, SPD received a grant of $36,645 from the U.S. Department of Justice for the purchase of cameras.

DiPino told the commissioners she believed the department ended up spending the funds on 24 of the devices. However, she pointed out, they no longer can be used because the technology is outdated.

More recently, she continued, the SPD has purchased 22 cameras designed to be used in police vehicles, and those are being installed.

When Commissioner Brody asked how staff would move forward if the board authorized a new initiative, City Manager Barwin replied, “It’s going to be a team effort. … We’ll have to go through a procurement exercise to try to pinpoint the costs.”

Some policy issues also will need to be addressed, Barwin added.

Then he noted the necessity of bargaining with the police unions, a process with which DiPino and the Office of the City Attorney would be involved.

“If we decided to do anything, it’s going to be incorporated into next year’s budget?” Commissioner Liz Alpert asked.

“I believe that’s a safe time estimation,” Barwin told her.

He also indicated hopefulness that, as a result of dialogue underway in Congress, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, that federal funding might end up being available to assist with the city initiative.

This is another type of body camera. Image courtesy of the ACLU via Pennsylvania State University via Flickr

Alpert then referred to research provided to the commissioners in advance of the meeting, which indicated that body cameras likely would benefit the SPD more than offenders.

“The research has been a mixed bag,” Barwin responded. “The most consistent line is that it does, in fact, help the SPD.”

However, he pointed out, “A lot of times, the cameras are jiggling around, and the views aren’t the best; they’re not definitive.”

Heather Robison, administrator of the city’s Police Advisory panels, told the commissioners, “My research has really come out in favor of body cameras, I would say.” Both officers and members of the public feel safer when the cameras are in use, she added. Officers feel the cameras protect them “from frivolous complaints,” Robison noted.

Moreover, Robinson said, members of the public “often … expect [police officers] to have body cameras.”