Body cam use by police in Florida
Momentum seems to be building across the state for body-camera use.
Vonna Keomanyvong, Wochit
The Lakeland City Commission gave initial approval Thursday to a budget that, for the first time, includes body cameras for its police department.
The topic has divided city leaders for years, with opponents concerned about the long-term cost of the technology and whether it’s needed. But residents who came out in droves to support the cameras Thursday night — and who have been calling for them loudly since the murder of George Floyd in March 2020 by a Minneapolis police officer — left the meeting satisfied following the 5-2 vote that sets the stage for a potential 4% tax increase.
“The big issue here is public trust and transparency,” said Terry Coney, who leads the local chapter of the NAACP and was joined by many Black residents in attendance.
Resident Phyllis West told the commission of a time when she was sweeping her front porch, minding her own business, when two Lakeland police officers pulled a gun on her and asked who else was in the house.
Eventually, she said, another officer arrived and informed the officers they had the wrong house. If something would have happened that day, there would have been no body cameras to corroborate her story, she told the commission in a heartfelt speech.
“I understand all this about budget and money,” West said. “We are talking about lives here.”
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A tax increase?
With the commission vote Thursday, they also gave first approval to a tax rate that, while lower than the current year’s, still constitutes a slight tax increase since it’s higher than the rollback rate.
The rollback rate is the rate needed to bring in the same amount of revenue as last year. When new development comes in and property values increase — as they did by 11% in Lakeland — a lower rate is needed to keep revenue flat.
The City Commission on Thursday tentatively signed off on a new tax rate of $5.43 per $1,000 of property value, lower than the current rate of $5.46 per $1,000.
That means the owner of a $200,000 home after homestead exemptions will pay $1,086 in property taxes. That’s $46, or 4.2 % more, than if the city adopted the rollback rate.
But taxpayers could have been dealt a bigger blow if the city had been forced to raise the tax rate to fund the body cameras.
“For the citizens, we are very fortunate that there’s been such growth in the city limits that has added to the tax base,” City Finance Director Michael Brossart said. “We can add this technology without having to raise the tax rate.”
The proposed $762.3 million budget also accounts for a 1.5 % pay increase to employees, three new firefighter positions and additional equipment for the police department, including new tasers. The city will also have to add staffing and storage software for its body cameras.
Weighing need and cost
Mayor Bill Mutz joined Commissioners Stephanie Madden, Sara Roberts McCarley, Chad McLeod and Phillip Walker in a vote for the tentative budget, with body cameras.
In voting against it, Mike Musick and Bill Read had reservations about the cost of the cameras and whether the city should take this on during a pandemic.
The cameras could cost an estimated $1.1 million per year, but the exact price point won’t be known until the city procures a contract. With body cameras, the city expects its surplus, reserve balance to decrease from $26.9 million in 2021 to roughly $22 million by 2024.
Read wondered: What if a hurricane hits and the city is forced to dip into these reserve funds to fix damage? What if the economy tanks as the pandemic wages on?
“I don’t have a magic crystal ball,” Read said, later adding, “I’m watching the dollar.”
There was also debate about need.
While Police Chief Ruben Garcia touched on the benefits of body cameras — saying “it’s another dimension that will help us determine what has occurred on the street” — he said “no” when asked if they were needed today.
“Our data does not say we need them,” he added, noting that the city gets about 15 complaints a year that go into an internal affairs investigation.
Musick said, “This gives me pause from a fiscally responsible position. This will put the cost burden on citizens long after we are here. We are voting for something that our own police chief said we don’t need.”
Supporting body cams
Saying that the benefits outweigh the risks, the majority of commissioners said the body cameras should be in place before something happens that causes unrest in the community, not after.
“No one wakes up saying this is the day we are going to have a shooting or a riot,” Madden said. “I feel like this is the way the world is going with technology, and I see all of the folks out here tonight who are representing a community.”
She said she’s focused less on money; more on what the residents want.
At the crowded meeting Thursday, nearly 10 people used public comment time to urge commissioners to approve the body cams. Nobody spoke against them.
“This is about accountability,” said Kenneth Glover, who served as Polk’s first Black prosecutor. “It protects police departments, and it protects the citizens from questionable actions.”
Even before the George Floyd incident, “we, as an African Americans, were concerned about things happening in our community,” he added. “Some of us don’t trust law enforcement.”
Momentum seems to be building across the state for body-camera use. According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports for 2020, more than 15 police departments and five sheriff’s offices had started using body cameras – or taken steps to implement them – in the past year. At the end of 2020, just over half of the 299 law agencies in Florida who responded to the FDLE still did not use body cameras.
But since the beginning of the year, at least four agencies – the Lake Wales and Sarasota police departments and the Alachua and Santa Rosa county sheriff’s departments – have taken steps to implement the cameras, meaning more than half of Florida’s law agencies will be using them soon.
More: How are body cameras working out in other Florida cities?
“This is what we are supposed to do as a city,” Madden said. “I hope we don’t have any reason to need them …but I feel like after listening to everyone, this is our moment to do this. Let’s do it ahead of the necessity.”
Mutz agreed, saying body cameras are the top request he hears from constituents. He encouraged his peers to approve the cameras.
“This is a way to strengthen our available tools and sharpen our swords,” he said. “This is an issue that you can’t put dollars and cents on.”
Dustin Wyatt covers Polk County government and countywide issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LLDustin_Wyatt.
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