Smile, Miami Beach. Cops, code enforcement and parking officials could soon be filming their encounters with you.
The city commission will discuss Wednesday whether to budget about $3 million over the next five years to equip police officers, code enforcement, parking enforcement, building inspectors and fire inspectors with wearable cameras — some small enough to clip onto eyeglasses — to record interactions with the public.
The plan comes after the fatal police shooting of an African-American man in Ferguson, Missouri. Locally, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has proposed spending $1 million for 500 cop cameras next year, despite objections from the police union.
Several other U.S. cities, including Daytona Beach, have already equipped some of their cops with the cameras. But Miami Beach could be the first to extend the cameras to parking and code enforcement, as well as building and fire inspectors — a move that has rankled unions and broadened the debate over the cameras, pitting government transparency vs. privacy of officials and citizens.
City Manager Jimmy Morales said Miami Beach has considered buying the cameras for about a year, adding that the events in Ferguson accelerated the matter. Morales is pushing for the program to be budgeted in the fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
“It really reinforced the need for it,” he said.
Under the plan, Miami Beach police would get 50 to 60 small cameras that clip onto their glasses or hats. The rest of the department would get outfitted by the end of 2015. Certain units would not be required to wear them, including internal affairs and undercover cops.
Four other departments — code enforcement, parking, building inspection and fire — would get five cameras each, a rectangular version that clips onto a shirt.
Taser, the company that makes police stun guns, manufactures the cameras. The devices will record and store footage only when triggered by the user. The user would then upload the footage to a Taser website, evidence.com.
The creation, storage and production of hours of video evidence that could be used in the courtroom will likely be a growing expense to governments over time.
The cloud-based storage system is a boon for municipalities that would otherwise struggle with the storage costs. But Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates, who’s had experience with the cameras from working in Aurora, Colorado, noted that taxpayers need to know this investment is long term and could become more expensive.
“The back end costs for government are potentially very expensive,” he said.
UNIONS PUSH BACK
Like Miami-Dade’s police union, Miami Beach’s employee unions are bristling at the proposal, calling it an overreach and distraction.
Richard McKinnon, local union president of the Communication Workers of America, represents non-sworn employees who would be working with the cameras. He called the program an invasion of privacy of both the employee and private citizen.
“Based on the limited facts provided to us, Communications Workers of America Local 3178 strongly believes that arming parking officers, code compliance officers, building inspectors, public safety specialists and/or any other city employees in similar jobs where they’re not carrying lethal weapons infringes on our residents and employees’ privacy without proper justification,” he said. “What is this? George Orwell’s 1984?”
Fraternal Order of Police president Alex Bello echoed McKinnon, adding that mandating officers to use the cameras would create a dangerous distraction in life-threatening situations.
“The concern is to have it in their mind where they’re so concerned that they put their life on the line because they’re more concerned about switching on a button and making sure they don’t get in trouble with the department,” he said. “I think that’s a distraction the officers do not need.”
He said the cameras could be a tool to protect cops if they have the discretion to decide when to start recording, but he decried any intention to monitor cops. The police union has filed a grievance with the county, and the Beach cops could do the same.
County commissioners have also pushed back on the body camera plan. Sally Heyman, chair of the commission’s public-safety committee, said Monday that she questions the rush to purchase the cameras without a broader discussion.
“Even the Department of Justice said it is good as a tool, but it has a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Heyman said.
Oates said he believes body cameras will eventually become standard among most police departments in the country, like dashboard cameras in the past. Having overseen a successful pilot program in Aurora, he believes that officers will eventually see the cameras as less of a burden and more of an indispensable tool for gathering evidence.
“I think there is a general angst, but I’ve been through this before, and I’ve told them that they can be convinced that it’s a good move for the department,” he said.
TRANSPARENCY AND PRIVACY
Michael White, a criminology professor at Arizona State University who wrote a Justice Department report on the use of body cameras, said he doesn’t know of any other city using the cameras on workers other than police. He said he hasn’t seen any studies on public reaction to the cameras, which makes it hard to gauge whether their use has fostered more trust between cops and the public.
One concern is a 30-second buffer that begins when an officer hits the record button. When the button is pressed, the camera — which has been shooting images only on a time loop — saves 30 seconds of silent video leading up to that moment. Then the audio kicks in.
It’s a feature designed to protect the officer’s privacy, but it has been criticized by Florida International University law professor Howard Wasserman in a recently published piece on National Public Radio.
“I think if we’re going to do this, we need to do it right,” he told NPR. “If anybody’s privacy is going to be compromised, it ought to be the government officials who are wielding the power in all of these encounters.”
Oates said he is confident about developing policy, training officers and eventually making everyone comfortable with the cameras. But he said the biggest challenge would be to maintain the large amount of video evidence produced by the cameras.
Record-keeping will be crucial, particularly in a state with broad public records laws, such as Florida.
“It’s the massive issue of infrastructure associated with taking video, preserving and storing it, and retrieving it up on request for prosecution and defense,” he said. “And in this state, for open records.”
OTHER DEPARTMENTS TRYING CAMERAS
The trend, as Oates pointed out, is growing. Law enforcement in Brevard County and Sarasota are talking about using cameras, while Daytona Beach police have already implemented them.
Daytona Beach police spokesman Jimmie Flynt said the camera has proven useful in cases like when former New York Giants player Jermaine Green was shot by police after he was found threatening a woman at knifepoint inside a home.
“All of this was caught on the body camera. The chief probably had 100 people yelling and screaming at him because the police shot a man,” Flynt said. “When the chief showed the body camera, that changed their tune.”
By the same token, the cameras can help police discover when a cop has misbehaved.
In Daytona Beach, an internal affairs investigation concluded an officer had turned off his camera during a violent arrest that left a woman with teeth knocked out and led to a trip to the emergency room. Investigators determined that one of two officers had turned off the body camera before hitting the woman, who had allegedly stuffed a bag of cocaine in her mouth.
One of the officers resigned and the other was fired, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
The cameras already have been tested in Miami-Dade; the county has used the cameras in a pilot program. Juan Perez, deputy director of the Miami-Dade police, said the test produced positive results.
After a deadly high-speed chase, and after rescue workers had treated the victims, a crime technician was unable to reproduce how a victim died. One of the responding officers was wearing a camera on his shirt collar, and investigators were able to see the bodies undisturbed, as they were before paramedics began treatment.