Thanks to City Commission vote, Sarasota Police Department working on steps necessary to launch use of body-worn cameras for Patrol Division officers

In response to vice mayor’s concerns about accountability, police chief says three new employees will be hired for program on basis of qualifications, regardless of whether they already work for the department or the city

This is the latest Axon model of a body-worn camera for law enforcement officers. Image from the Axon website

With the Sarasota City Commission having authorized a body-worn camera program for the Sarasota Police Department, Chief Bernadette DiPino and her staff have a number of steps to address before the initiative is expected to begin by July 2021.

During a unanimous vote taken during their regular meeting on Oct. 5, the city commissioners agreed to spend $3,661,990 on the equipment and three new employees necessary to handle all the facets of the program. DiPino explained that Axon Enterprises will supply the Police Department with 122 body cameras for first responders, which she pointed out would be the members of the Patrol Division. Ten of those cameras would be kept as spares, she added.

The Axon contract also calls for the company to provide 179 new Tasers to the Police Department, replacing older equipment with the latest models.

When Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked DiPino whether the implementation timeline could be accelerated, DiPino replied, “Absolutely, it could be moved up quicker.” DiPino agreed to work to have the program in place “no later than” July 2021.

The cost of the first year of using body cameras would be $818,645, DiPino noted. Because the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) had $500,000 remaining unspent out of its 2020 fiscal year budget, she said, and the City Commission had agreed to set aside $250,000 out of its budgets the past two years, $1 million of the total cost already is available.

City Manager Tom Barwin told the board members that the city has sufficient funds to cover the program’s operations for the first two years.

The $3.7-million figure did not include any expenses the Office of the City Attorney might incur in connection with the program, DiPino pointed out.

“Undeniably,” City Attorney Robert Fournier told the commissioners, “there will be a level of support on this matter [from his office],” mostly in terms of public records requests. Initially, he continued, he expects someone on his staff will have to “look at all of the recordings [from the cameras] before they’re released” to ensure that the footage does not violate any of the provisions in state law regarding exemptions.

Moreover, in regard to the officers using the cameras, Fournier said, “No one wants to find themselves in the middle of a media controversy when they’re just trying to do a good job” and they believe they have done nothing wrong.
Long-term, he added, he hopes the Police Department will become “more self-sufficient” in reviewing the videos and audio recordings before they are released to the public.

His estimate at this point, Fournier said, is that his office could incur expenses ranging from $75,000 to $125,000 for the first year of the program’s operations, calling the latter figure the “worst-case scenario.”

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question, Genevieve Judge, SPD’s public information officer, wrote in an Oct. 14 email that the order for the cameras and Tasers has not been placed yet. However, she added, “[O]ur Fiscal Division is actively working on finishing up the purchase order process.”

This is the newest Axon Taser model for law enforcement officers. Image from the Axon website

DiPino told the commissioners that she anticipated it would take 30 to 90 days to get the equipment after the order has been placed. She also noted that the two collective bargaining units that represent police officers in the city will have to sign off on the program before it can begin.

In response to a News Leader question about that process, Jason Bartolone, city communications specialist, wrote in an Oct. 15 email, “The IUPA union and PBA union have been notified of the body camera program. Per state law, the union has a right to come forward to bargain with the City regarding the impact to its members. This process of impact bargaining does not dictate approval or non-approval of the program. It provides an opportunity to review any impacts the program may have to the union members of the police department that would be wearing them.”

A years-long process

In 2018, the commissioners discussed a body camera program with DiPino as part of their planning for their 2019 fiscal year budget. Ultimately, with concerns about legal issues and the expense, the board members agreed not to proceed at that point.

On Oct. 5, DiPino explained that, at the commissioners’ direction, “because of national events,” City Manager Barwin recently had asked her and her staff to undertake the necessary research into implementing a program.

DiPino was referring to a number of law enforcement incidents this year that resulted in the deaths of Black individuals, including George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

DiPino called body cameras “an effective tool for public and officer safety. [The program] demonstrates a commitment to transparency and building trust and ensures accountability,” she added. Further, she said, it “protects officers from unjustified complaints of misconduct.”

Police Chief Bernadette DiPino addresses the commissioners on Oct. 5, via Zoom. News Leader image

DiPino pointed out that the cameras will be worn by the Patrol Division officers during all their official law enforcement activities — traffic stops, contact with one or more persons that an officer initiates, traffic stops and crashes, pursuits, and searches of buildings, for examples. The cameras also will record officers’ responses to calls from the public for service, DiPino said.

The Axon body cameras will record audio and video, she explained. An officer manually can turn on the camera, DiPino said, but gunshots will prompt the camera to start recording automatically. Additionally, if one officer activates his or her camera, other officers’ cameras in the immediate vicinity also will turn on automatically.

Still, she cautioned the commissioners, the cameras are not perfect. She used an NFL football analogy to underscore that. Even with 16 cameras capturing video at the goal line, DiPino pointed out, game officials — and viewers — do not always agree on what happened in a scoring situation.

Moreover, she said, “The body camera will show only the officer’s view … and if an officer is pointing a Taser or a handgun at an individual,” that might obscure the view.

A body camera recording “may bring up just as many questions as it does answer,” DiPino added.

Among the reasons she suggested the July 2021 implementation timeline, DiPino continued, is that she and her staff will have to ensure that all the officers who will be using the cameras will have been trained to do so and that they feel comfortable with the program after that training.

Additionally, DiPino said, she and her staff will need to review the “practices and protocols” they already have laid out in a policy in preparation for the eventual launch of a City of Sarasota initiative. They will need to ensure the guidelines cover any new legal standards, she added.

Still, she said, other law enforcement agencies have considered the SPD policy to represent best practices, and a number of them have utilized it.

The ‘queuing’ questions

City Attorney Robert Fournier addresses the commissioners on Aug. 19 via WebEx remote meeting technology. File image

One other facet of the program, about which Fournier sought clarification from the chief, pertained to what he said he called a “queuing” issue.

After a camera has been turned on manually or goes live automatically, he said he understood that it will maintain the 30 seconds of footage recorded immediately beforehand.

In other words, Fournier continued, he believes the cameras do not keep every bit of audio or video they record every time they are in use.

“The city attorney is correct,” DiPino told the commissioners. “It’s called a ‘pre-event buffering.’” A camera can be set to keep from zero seconds up to 120 seconds of pre-event buffering, she added, noting her belief in the benefits of being able to access content recorded for a certain period of time before a camera was turned on.

“It’s important to see what the officer is experiencing,” she continued, prior to the point when the officer turns on the camera or it turns itself on.

When Commissioner Liz Alpert asked for more details about the queuing, DiPino explained that a body camera “records continually.”

Her description of that facet of the camera’s operation indicated that it is analogous to the recording of cockpit voices in commercial aircraft. The cockpit device will start recording over previously recorded exchanges after a certain period of time has lapsed.

“The pre-recording issue … is extremely common,” Commissioner Hagen Brody said, referring to the operation of body cameras.

His primary concern about that capability of the body cameras, Fournier pointed out, is whether someone might file a lawsuit against the city and the Police Department for not keeping every second of audio and video recorded during an officer’s shift.

If it becomes a problem, he added, “I think we then might have to set [the buffering] at zero until we get the legal issue resolved.”

If such legal action were taken in Sarasota, Brody responded, the outcome of the litigation would affect all officers in the state of Florida who wear body cameras. “I don’t think that’s a reason for us to halt progress on this issue.”

The new employees

DiPino also talked of the three new employees who will be needed to handle the program. The manager, she explained, will be responsible for the general, day-to-day oversight. A person in a Specialist II position, according to the details she provided the commissioners, will review the recordings “to ensure that sensitive footage of victims and innocent bystanders is appropriately modified to protect their privacy and safety,” and that person will process all evidence record requests from the State Attorney’s Office in criminal cases, along with all public record requests.

This is the job description prepared by the Police Department for the body-worn camera (BWC) program manager. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Finally, a support services administrator will prepare, scan and purge documents and files “in accordance with policies, procedures, regulations, and public record laws,” a city staff memo noted. That individual will assist in basic troubleshooting for the program, too, and help with public records requests, the memo added.

Those persons will have to have been hired before the program can begin, DiPino told the commissioners.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked about what she called a lack of details in the job descriptions regarding community engagement or reporting to the city’s two advisory boards that handle issues related to law enforcement — the Independent Police Advisory Panel and the Police Complaint Committee.

As part of the process of implementing the body camera program, DiPino replied, the Police Department will undertake “extensive outreach to the community,” through its Public Information Office and the two police panels. The program manager, DiPino added, “would have the ultimate responsibility for the community outreach.”

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie participates in a City Commission meeting via WebEx technology in August. News Leader image

Freeland Eddie then asked to whom residents should address any questions that arise in the wake of an incident.

DiPino responded that she believes that meetings of either of the city’s police panels would be appropriate venues for the airing of questions and concerns by members of the public. Moreover, DiPino pointed out, people should not hesitate to call her. She has given out many of her business cards, she added, which include her cell phone number.

Then Freeland Eddie said, “I strongly believe that [the new employees] should be outside hires. … I think that transparency is going to be critical.”

Whenever she seeks new employees for specific positions, DiPino responded, she advertises widely, so she can “find the people that best fit the criteria to do the job. … I will make sure [these new workers] are held accountable.”

When Mayor Ahearn-Koch asked whether DiPino would be opposed to hiring people who do not already work with the city or the Police Department, DiPino explained that employees in her department “may be the best persons for the job,” and they already will have undergone background checks and fingerprinting, which is a necessity for anyone the department hires.

City Attorney Fournier warned of potential legal repercussions if the commissioners excluded current city or Police Department employees from applying for the new positions.

Her concern, Freeland Eddie responded, is that if the body camera program employees already had been working for the department, that would lead to the perception “that we are essentially governing ourselves.”

“These people have nothing to do with the … oversight” of the body camera recordings, DiPino told Freeland Eddie; that will be the responsibility of the department’s Internal Affairs Division. The employees’ roles will be primarily of a technical nature, DiPino added.

This is a breakdown of Sarasota Police Department expenses for the body camera program. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Furthermore, DiPino said, the department has won awards for its interactions with the public, including its human and civil rights programs. “I think [the body camera program] just shows how progressive we are and our willingness to let people see what our police officers are doing.”

She also reminded Freeland Eddie that internal oversight measures long have been a facet of other professions, including medicine and the law.

As for accountability, DiPino continued: “I assure you, in 18 years as a police chief, I’ve never been scared to terminate or discipline an officer” who acted in appropriately, even though civilians may have overruled some of her decisions.

City Attorney Fournier also pointed out that the state statute governing body cameras calls for Internal Affairs divisions in departments to have oversight of the cameras’ use.

“I’m not accusing the department of wrongdoing or the chief of not holding people accountable,” Freeland Eddie responded. However, she insisted, the three new employees will be “very integrally involved in the decisions that upper management makes.”

Commissioners Willie Shaw and Brody said they agreed with DiPino about the issues regarding the new employees.

Still, Shaw said, the commissioners ‘have to take into consideration the sensitivity of actions taking place in the nation today and [the calls for] transparency [in law enforcement procedures].”