A Look Into Orlando Police Body Cameras, Part 1

body camera

Orlando police body-worn camera (provided by OPD)

As public scrutiny focuses on police practices and use of excessive force, interest in body cameras has skyrocketed, including here in Orlando. While not a solution, body-worn cameras could definitely help but only if there is an open public discussion on how to improve the process as implementation continues.

There are several concerns and unanswered questions surrounding local policy on police body cameras. In fact, many of the recent cases before the Citizens’ Police Review Board expose concerns about the current technology, actual use of the cameras by officers and training or retraining procedures. Also, Mayor Buddy Dyer has made less-than-truthful comments on the record about body cameras, clouding the serious issue and confusing the public. This is one issue where public trust and involvement is as critical as the body camera on the officer.

During his re-election campaign, Mayor Dyer responded to questions about OPD policy, use of excessive force and body cameras. In his statement during his editorial board endorsement interview with the Orlando Sentinel in September, Dyer attempted to make his case by insinuating “every officer interaction” would be recorded and more accountable to the community. In reality, that’s not exactly true.

“One of the things that we have done in this year’s budget is we have provided funding for body cams, which will make every officer interaction with our residents more accountable and accessible,” Mayor Dyer told the Orlando Sentinel (listen here). “I think that is truly important because a lot of times what happens in police incidents is you get the last thirty seconds of an incident and a lot has transpired before that. So I think it’s pretty important that we deploy body cams.”

First, the body-worn cameras being used by the Orlando Police Department require the officer to turn the camera on before it starts recording. The body cameras do not record a majority of any officer’s shift. Second, there have already been numerous officer-related incidents which have resulted in no body camera recordings as officers do not turn the cameras on.

If police officers are wearing a body camera that is turned off, it is neither accountable nor accessible. In fact, out of the most recent cases involving four OPD officers wearing body cameras brought before the Citizens’ Police Review Board, only one officer had his body camera turned on. Concerns about this were raised by board members during the meetings. Some are even raising concerns that officers already understand acceptable excuses to justify not turning on their body cameras, such as “I had to pull my gun or turn on my camera” which is similar to “I feared for my life” in cases involving deadly force. That very excuse, pull gun or turn on camera, was used in one of the recent cases before the Citizens’ Police Review Board.

Also, the local deployment has been slow. The Orlando Police Department currently has 50 police body cameras in use and there are 743 sworn OPD officers. Full local implementation of police body-worn cameras will take place “over the next couple of years,” according to OPD. Orlando police plan to use a federal grant, part of President Barack Obama’s call for $75 million to be spent on cameras for officers across the nation, to purchase about 450 body-worn cameras for first responders.  The City of Orlando will receive matching funds in the amount of $497,480 for the new police body cameras.

“One of the reasons we were awarded the grant over many other agencies across the country was because of our pilot/research project with the University of South Florida, our collaboration with the community and other stakeholders, and our proactive development of a body-worn camera program,” said OPD Public Information Officer Sergeant Wanda Ford.

OPD’s own study in partnership with USF showed that officers wearing body-worn cameras have fewer complaints. This is another reason why the City of Orlando should be doing more to implement the body cameras and improve the process while including the public as soon as possible. The one case before the Citizens’ Police Review Board where body camera video was available benefited the officer, which is good for OPD and future officers who may be implicated in complaints. The correct body camera policy along with leadership’s enforcement of use will end up helping protect our officers and the city against lawsuits that are far too common lately.

But again, officers have to actually turn their body cameras on for any of this to possibly make an impact. Complicating the current city policy, there appears to be no enforcement from OPD leadership or City Hall nor any real re-training procedures to remedy the problem. Chief John Mina could only tell the Citizens’ Police Review Board that if officers repeatedly do not turn their cameras, he deals with it. But how and when?

In the recent cases involving complaints in front of the Citizens’ Police Review Board where no body camera video was recorded, OPD admits there were no consequences for any of the officers. “In reference to the Citizen’s Review Board question, there were no consequences for the cases you reference because in none of those cases was it shown that an officer intentionally did not turn on a camera to avoid capturing video,” PIO Sergeant Wanda Ford said.

The excuse given provides a glimpse of a loophole that will likely continue to be exploited over and over, simply because it is impossible to prove an officer intentionally did not turn on a camera to avoid capturing video. How would OPD even investigate their own officers on these grounds? They won’t.

However, the officers still need to be held accountable for their actions whether it was intentional or not. If a cop T-bones your car at an intersection because he was being careless, it’s fair to assume that was an accident and not intentional. But the officer still faces consequences for it.

The OPD Body-Worn Camera policy clearly states that all officers using body cameras must be trained. From the official city policy: “Officers shall be trained and instructed prior to being assigned a mobile video recording system. Members shall only use BWCs [body-worn cameras] after they have received agency-approved training.”

So why are some OPD officers not turning on their body cameras? Is the original training insufficient? Is there a need for re-training procedures earlier in the process? Are there too many additional burdens being placed on officers in already pressured situations?

OPD insisted requiring officers to turn their body cameras on and off does not put an extra burden on police during pressure situations while pushing back on having body cameras which record the entire time while being worn. “Recording based on the event, call type or situation creates a video for that specific time/event,” said PIO Sergeant Ford. “Recording an entire shift beginning to end would require an entire shift’s worth of video to be attached to each case as there’d be no separation by event.”

“Officers’ duties during a shift involve many things, and many are interactions not related to a specific crime,” PIO Sergeant Ford added when responding to why the decision was made not to record all police interactions. She provided an example of an officer speaking during a school presentation to explain the decision and show some associated costs. “During a presentation at a school, there is no danger to officer safety, and no crime being investigated. So there is no law enforcement related reason to record. The amount of video created and retained doesn’t just impact the cost of storage. It’s a much bigger picture. The more video captured, the more video there is to upload and review. The more video to upload, the longer it will take each camera to upload and free up the storage space on each camera.”

The Dyer administration has raised the issue of cost in terms of storing collected video and data to defend not recording all interactions, but that seems like a stretch, especially for a tech-forward community like Orlando. When OPD was asked about an estimate for the cost to store recordings of all police interactions, PIO Sergeant Ford stated, “We have never estimated that cost, as we have never planned on entire shift recording.”

From Dyer’s statement to the Sentinel editorial board, one may think the mayor would champion more accountability and accessibility while incorporating new technologies to help our current body camera system. For OPD, would the service not justify the cost? BWC practices will always be reviewed to include impact to cost and budget,” PIO Sergeant Ford noted.

Responding to questions about technology which would automatically turn on body-worn cameras by officers, similar to dash cam video recording when lights are turned on, the city stated they are looking into the matter. “We are also keeping a close eye on other testing that is currently being done on newer technology,” PIO Sergeant Ford said. “For example, there are body-worn cameras in the testing phase that turn on automatically when the red and blue lights are activated and turn on automatically when in close proximity to another body worn camera that is already activated.”

Incorporating new technologies like this will be critical to assisting law enforcement as well as assuring the community transparency and accountability are top priorities. But more important than that, Orlando needs a real public discussion that is open and honest about how to improve the process now, not later, to make sure body cameras are implemented successfully as part of the solution our community is seeking.

Mayor Dyer and OPD have been saying over and over how important these body cameras are, but in practice they seem to have an excuse for every single concern or question related to them so far. That’s going to have to change.

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